FROM ZOO TO YOU Celebrating the American bison

By Alice Nelson

Which fuzzy mammal do you think grabbed the title of the official National Mammal of the United States? If you guessed the American bison, commonly called “a buffalo”, you are absolutely right! The first Saturday of November is a day set aside to honor these massive and unique creatures.

Did you know that the American bison is the largest land animal in North America? At almost 13 feet long and about 2,000 pounds, the male American bison is much longer than any buffalo species. Don’t let their large size deceive you though, they are very fast and can run up to 35 miles per hour! Bison can also turn around quickly, jump tall fences, and swim surprisingly well. 

So, what is the difference between bison and buffalo? Location, location, location. Bison live in North America and Europe, whereas buffalo live in Africa and Asia. In general, bison are longer than buffalos, though some buffalos weigh more than bison. The horn shape also is a huge clue. Bison have smaller, about two feet long, “C” shaped horns, whereas buffalo have huge, almost six feet horns that vary in shapes depending on the species. But whether you call them bison or buffalo, the National Mammal of the United States is amazing!

The American bison traditionally ranged across almost all North America, including Canada. As such the indigenous peoples of North America have had a special relationship with the bison. Not only was the bison a major food source, but they were also used to create tools, clothing, and even dwellings or homes. To many indigenous tribes, the bison is a sacred animal. The bison captured the attention of many settlers and became a widespread symbol used on anything from coins to flags.

Unfortunately, with this attention came over hunting, habitat loss, cattle diseases, and landscape fracturing by private fences and roads. If you want to help bison reclaim some of their historical land, you can vote for larger swaths of protected natural land. You can also help by supporting places that raise or house bison to protect their genetics for future generations.

The Lee Richardson Zoo currently has a female American bison, Sienna, who is 15 years old this year. After the passing of her companion Titus, the zoo has been working closely with the Sandsage Bison Range to bring in a new male bison later this year. So be sure to drop by the bison yard of the Lee Richardson Zoo and wish Sienna, and maybe her new companion, a happy National Bison Day!

Alice Nelson is an education specialist at Lee Richardson Zoo.