Creature Feature: The American Bison

Featured photo by George F. Mobley, National Geographic

What’s the largest land mammal in the United States?

A bison walking in the snow in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Mark Thiessen
A bison walking in the snow in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

Today’s featured creature, of course! Today we’re highlighting the American Bison because believe it or not, it’s National Bison Day.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Bison bison
  • Family Name: Bovidae
  • Classification: Mammal
  • Habitat: Grassland
  • Diet: Herbivore (Fav foods include: plains grasses, herbs, shrubs, and twigs)
  • Size: 7 to 11.5 feet
  • Weight: 930 to 2,200 lbs
  • Average Life Span: 12 to 20 years
  • Endangered Status: Near Threatened

Did you know? You don’t need to travel to Yellowstone to catch sight of just how big a bison is.  Although they are not roaming our country in the numbers that they used to, you can still find American Bison in all 50 states between zoos and public herds on federal land.

Bison, also known as buffalo, are enormous beasts best known for their shaggy brown fur and giant heads. This creature stands between 5 and 6.5 feet tall at the shoulder, and can weigh over a ton! Their horns alone can grow up to 2 feet long and despite their massive size, bison can really move when they need to. They can run at speeds up to 40 miles per hour!

Before settlers moved west in the 19th century, it is estimated that over 50 million (million!) bison roamed the Great Plains and most of North America – ranging from Canada to Mexico and from Oregon to New Jersey. Bison were very important to the Plains Indian societies, as they provided food and fur – critical natural resources that helped Native Americans live off the land. As settlers moved west, they killed bison for food, sport, and to deprive the Native Americans of their most important natural asset. In less than one hundred years, bison plummeted to less than a thousand.

In the nick of time: President Theodore Roosevelt led the charge in saving bison from extinction in the early 1900s.

Today, bison numbers have rebounded somewhat, with numbers of wild bison back in the thousands. Not without controversy, about 200,000 bison live on preserves and ranches where they are raised for their meat.

Consider how you might be able to talk to your kids or students about this iconic animal and its importance in our history and culture. The American Bison played a big role in shaping the Great Plains and the lifestyle of the Native Americans who lived there. How does that compare to our relationship with bison today?

More related resources from National Geographic Education

Video Spotlight: Watch this Wild Chronicles clip to learn about where bison live.

Read more about the American Bison on the National Geographic and National Geographic Kids websites.

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