1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bison

BISON, the name of the one existing species of European wild ox, Bos (Bison) bonasus, known in Russian as zubr. Together with the nearly allied New World animal known in Europe as the (North) American bison, but in its own country as “buffalo,” and scientifically as Bos (Bison) bison, the bison represents a group of the ox tribe distinguished from other species by the greater breadth and convexity of the forehead, superior length of limb, and the longer spinal processes of the dorsal vertebrae, which, with the powerful muscles attached for the support of the massive head, form a protuberance or hump on the shoulders. The bisons have also fourteen pairs of ribs, while the common ox has only thirteen. The forehead and neck of both species are covered with long, shaggy hair of a dark brown colour; and in winter the whole of the neck, shoulders and hump are similarly clothed, so as to form a curly, felted mane. This mane in the European species disappears in summer; but in the American bison it is to a considerable extent persistent.

The bison is now the largest European quadruped, measuring about 10 ft. long, exclusive of the tail, and standing nearly 6 ft. high. Formerly it was abundant throughout Europe, as is proved by the fossil remains of this or a closely allied form found on the continent and in England, associated with those of the extinct mammoth and rhinoceros. Caesar mentions the bison as abounding, along with the extinct aurochs or wild ox, in the forests of Germany and Belgium, where it appears to have been occasionally captured and afterwards exhibited alive in the Roman amphitheatres. At that period, and long after, it seems to have been common throughout central Europe, as we learn from the evidence of Herberstein in the 16th century. Nowadays bison are found in a truly wild condition only in the forests of the Caucasus, where they are specially protected by the Russian government. There is, however, a herd, somewhat in the condition of park-animals, in the forest of Byelovitsa, in Lithuania, where it is protected by the tsar, but nevertheless is gradually dying out. In 1862 the Lithuanian bisons numbered over 1200, but by 1872 they had diminished to 528, and in 1892 there were only 491. The prince of Pless has a small herd at Promnitz, his Silesian estate, founded by the gift of a bull and three cows by Alexander II. in 1855, his herd being the source of the menagerie supply.

Bison feed on a coarse aromatic grass, and browse on the leaves, shoots, bark and twigs of trees.

The American bison is distinguished from its European cousin by the following among other features: The hind-quarters are weaker and fall away more suddenly, while the withers are proportionately higher. Especially characteristic is the great mass of brown or blackish brown hair clothing the head, neck and forepart of the body. The shape of the skull and horns is also different; the horns themselves being shorter, thicker, blunter and more sharply curved, while the forehead of the skull is more convex and the sockets of the eyes are more distinctly tubular. This species formerly ranged over a third of North America in countless numbers, but is now practically extinct. The great herd was separated into a northern and southern division by the completion of the Union Pacific railway, and the annual rate of destruction from 1870 to 1875 has been estimated at 2,500,000 head. In 1880 the completion of the Northern Pacific railway led to an attack upon the northern herd. The last of the Dakota bisons were destroyed by Indians in 1883, leaving then less than 1000 wild individuals in the United States.

A count which was concluded at the end of February 1903, put the number of captive bisons at 1119, of which 969 were in parks and zoological gardens in the United States, 41 in Canada and 109 in Europe. At the same time it was estimated that there were 34 wild bison in the United States and 600 in Canada.

In England small herds are kept by the duke of Bedford at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, and by Mr C. J. Leyland at Haggerston Castle, Northumberland.

Two races of the American bison have been distinguished—the typical prairie form, and the woodland race, B. bison athabascae; but the two are very similar.  (R. L.*)