bisontine /buy"seuhn tuyn', -zeuhn-/, adj.
/buy"seuhn, -zeuhn/, n., pl. bison.
1. Also called American bison, American buffalo. a North American, oxlike ruminant, Bison bison, having a large head and high, humped shoulders: formerly common in North America, its small remaining population in isolated western areas of the U.S. and Canada is now protected.
2. Also called wisent. a related animal, Bison bonasus, of Europe, less shaggy and slightly larger than the American bison: now greatly reduced in number.
Cf. buffalo.
[1350-1400; ME bisontes (pl.) < L (nom. sing. bison) < Gmc; cf. OHG wisunt, OE wesend, ON visundr]

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Either species (genus Bison) of oxlike bovid with a convex forehead and a pronounced shoulder hump.

Its dark brown, coarse hair is especially long on the head, which is held low, and on the neck and shoulders. Both sexes bear heavy, curved horns. A mature bull stands about 6.5 ft (2 m) at the shoulder and weighs more than 1,980 lb (900 kg). Bison live in herds. The American bison (B. bison), commonly called buffalo, was abundant over most of North America when Europeans arrived. Uncontrolled hunting drove it nearly to extinction by 1900, but it has since recovered. The European bison (B. bonasus) is similar and survives only in a few managed herds.

American bison, or plains buffalo (Bison bison).

Alan G. Nelson/Root Resources

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      either of two species of oxlike grazing mammals that constitute the genus Bison of the family Bovidae. The American bison (B. bison), commonly known as the buffalo or the plains buffalo, is native to North America, while the European bison (B. bonasus), or wisent, is native to Europe. Both species were drastically reduced in numbers by hunting and now occupy small, protected areas that are tiny fractions of their former ranges.

      The American bison differs from domestic cattle or oxen in several respects. It is larger and has a broad, heavy head that is carried low and cannot be raised to shoulder level. The bison also has a pronounced hump at the shoulders, heavy forequarters, and 14 ribs instead of the 13 found in cattle. The coarse, shaggy fur is dark brown in colour. It grows especially long on the head, neck, and shoulders and usually forms a beard on the chin. On rare occasions a white bison is born; these unusual specimens were especially honoured—and even worshiped—by American Indians. Both bison sexes bear short, upcurved horns, those of the cow being smaller. Bison are large, powerful animals. A mature bull stands about 2 metres (6.5 feet) at the shoulder and weighs more than 900 kg (1,980 pounds). The female is about 1.5 metres (5 feet) tall and weighs about 320 kg (700 pounds).

      Bison live in small groups, or bands, whose basic unit is one or more females and several generations of their offspring. Adult males live on the band's periphery or form their own small groups. Large temporary herds of bison may arise from the congregation of dozens or even hundreds of individual bands. During the mating season, which reaches its height in August, bulls engage in head-butting contests to determine their social dominance. The cow usually gives birth to a single calf in May after about nine months' gestation. All members of the band protect the young. Bison prefer grass and herbs, but they will also eat twigs and leaves. Bison herds undertake short seasonal migrations, moving a few hundred miles southward in winter and then moving back north when warmer weather returns. Their usual gait is a plodding walk, but they also trot, canter in a stiff-legged manner, or run with a rolling motion. In spite of their bulk, they are agile and fast, having been clocked at speeds of 40 miles (65 km) per hour. Bison are unpredictable animals. Sometimes they can be approached closely without evincing alarm, but at other times they stampede at the least provocation.

 Some authorities distinguish two subspecies of American bison (see photograph—>), the plains bison (B.b. bison) and the woodland bison (B.b. athabascae), though the differences between them are minor. The plains bison formerly inhabited most of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains provinces of Canada. It greatly outnumbered the woodland bison, which lived in the Rocky Mountains from western Canada southward to Colorado. The plains bison once roamed over North America in numbers estimated as high as 50 million when Europeans arrived, in what was probably the largest aggregation of large animals known to recorded history. The bison formed the mainstay of the economy of the Plains Indians (Plains Indian), providing them with meat for food, hides and fur for clothing and shelter, and sinew and horn for tools, yet the Indians' hunting activities had little impact on the bison population.

      With the westward movement of white civilization in the 18th and 19th centuries, the bison were wantonly slaughtered in ever-growing numbers: they were hunted for subsistence, for the commercial sale of their meat and hides, or simply for sport. By the early 19th century the bison had been exterminated east of the Mississippi River. The extension of railroads across the Great Plains in the 1860s led to the decimation of the immense herds that foraged on the vast grasslands there. One hunter alone, William F. Cody (Cody, William F.) (“Buffalo Bill”), killed 4,280 animals in 1867–68 while supplying buffalo meat for railroad construction crews. The white man's slaughter of the bison also had a conscious political objective—to deprive the Indians (American Indian) of their means of subsistence, thereby making it easier to drive them on to reservations or make them adopt settled agricultural pursuits. Much of the hostility between the Indians and the white men was caused by the whites' unremitting destruction of the bison herds. By 1870 the bison population on the Great Plains had been divided into two parts, lying north and south, respectively, of the Union Pacific railway line. The southern herd was completely destroyed by 1875, and the northern one by 1885. By 1889 there were only 835 bison left alive in the United States.

      About 1900, as the bison neared extinction, concerted action by cattlemen and conservationists led by William T. Hornaday resulted in the protection of the remaining animals in government preserves. The present managed herds now total as many as 200,000 individuals and ensure the survival of the species. The woodland bison survives in only very small numbers, however, and is considered an endangered subspecies.

      The European bison, or wisent, differs from the American bison in several respects. It lives in woodlands and is slightly larger and longer-legged than the American bison but is less heavily built. The European bison's range originally extended eastward across Europe to the Volga River and the Caucasus Mountains. It became extinct in the wild after World War I, but herds built from zoo-bred animals were subsequently reestablished, most notably in the Belovezhskaya (Polish: Białowieża) Forest (Belovezhskaya Forest) in Belarus and Poland. Other countries that are home to the European bison include Lithuania, Russia, and Ukraine.

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Universalium. 2010.

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