ZOO-ology column: Don't be buffaloed about bison
By Judie Farnsworth
"Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam," is a familiar refrain, but (literally speaking) that could mean relocating to Africa or Asia.
In North America, what people call a buffalo is only a distant relative of those considered to be true buffalos, the African cape buffalo and Asian water buffalo.
The word buffalo comes from "boeufs" (pronounced behrf) used by French fur trappers and dates to the mid 1600s.
The word bison was first noted in the late 1700s and is a Greek word. Both refer to ox-like animals.
So, buffalo or bison? Both names have been used interchangeably for years (we even have a buffalo nickel.) But, the official name is American bison. It's related to the endangered European bison (wisent) of north central Europe.
North America has two bison subspecies; the plains and wood bison. Side by side, you might notice the plains bison is smaller and paler with thick wooly fur between its horns. The wood bison is larger and darker with long strands of fur between its horns.
Thick winter coats are so well insulated that snow may not melt on them.
Once found in numbers of 30 million to 60 million, bison were hunted to near-extinction ($1,000 a head) in the 19th century before conservation measures were taken.
Species survival and reintroduction programs have brought them from the brink of extinction, but the numbers will never approach what they once were.
The European bison is more even-tempered, although it's apt to lock horns. The wild American bison is more prone to grumpiness and apt to charge.
An upward pointing tail is a red flag.
Bison are the largest North American land mammals, but their size belies their capacity for dexterity and speed. Imagine huge bison spinning around and roaring toward you at 35 or 40 mph.
Males can weigh in at 2,000 pounds. Newborns weighing 30 to 60 pounds may weigh 400 pounds on their first birthday.
Historically, bison have lived in lifelong close-knit herds of related females and their young. The herd society is led by a dominant, experienced female. This dominance may be passed on to her young. When huge super-herds broke up following mass migrations, bison could recognize family group members and re-form the herd.
Males leave at 3 years and live singly or in bachelor groups. Several herds may group defensively; shoulder to shoulder to protect young. They may join again during breeding season.
In the spring, the male begins bellowing, posturing, wallowing, and pawing the ground, dislodging huge chunks of earth. Love is in the air. He often fights furiously. Layers of strategically placed flesh add padding in head-to-head combat.
He may tend (stand in front of) a female blocking the lovely lady from view.
The females seem quite thrilled by this and gallop around stirring up more action and reassuring that hers is the strongest male.
Following all this, the males usually need to retreat and recover from the spring fling.
Many Plains Indians depended on bison for survival and lived nomadic lives following herds. Some of today's highways (often near rivers) follow roadways trampled by migrating bison. Their history is interwoven with ours and their lineage is most fascinating.
nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/NorthAmerica/Facts/fact-bison.cfm animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/american-bison/ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_bison
Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.