The name bison is the Greek word for “ox-like animal”.
The American bison and the European bison (known as a wisent) are the largest surviving land animals in North America and Europe. Cloven hooved and similar in appearance to cattle and buffalo, two subspecies of bison exist in North America: the plains bison (Bison bison bison) and the wood bison (Bison bison athabascae).
For plains bison, the bulk of their diet is grass, even during the winter months. Wood bison have a slightly more diverse diet that includes lichen and woody vegetation, and during the winter months an almost exclusive diet of sedges.
Covered in thick dark brown fur, bison can grow to be more than two meters tall and weigh over a ton. At one time, more than 60 million grazed on the grasslands of North America from Arctic Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico.
These animals were vital to the survival of many Native American peoples that shared the land with them. They used every part of the animal for food, clothing and shelter. All that changed during the 1800s when European settlers hunted and slaughtered the massive herds until by 1889 only 541 bison were left.
Today, the descendants of those Native Americans are helping bring back these symbols of the American West by giving them a new home on the reservations of America’s Plains Indians.
Until recently, the animals mostly lived in national parks and on a few reserves. By returning them to Native American lands, they have the chance to expand their habitat once more.
Such efforts are not just about wildlife conservation, but about reconnecting with a traditional way of life that vanished over a century ago.
The bison in the Cave of Altamira (pictured here) was painted some 17,000 to 12,000 years ago by people of the Magdalenian culture living in what is now northern Spain.
As for the difference between a buffalo and a bison, it may be a matter of semantics but, as everyone knows, you can’t wash your hands in a buffalo.