Sunday, February 17, 2013

Zoo Babies: Bison

Today, in honor of the birthday of Kevyn Llewellyn, we are going to be looking at a few photos of a baby bison born about this time last year at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, Illinois.  Although frequently incorrectly referred to as buffalo, they are simply different animals, despite the outward similarities between the two groups.  If you see something that looks like it could be either a buffalo or a bison, there is a very, very good bet that you are looking at a bison.  Unless something very strange has happened, and in that case, you will be excused for looking foolish when it comes to your knowledge of the bovids.

Anyways, the bison, despite their once immense numbers (numbering in the tens of millions), were hunted almost to extinction in the 1800s, but have made a stunning comeback, with about 20,000 living in protected areas such as National Parks, and a further 500,000 living on tribal lands and ranches.  Nevertheless, their range is vastly reduced from what it once was.  Many people have come to the aid of the bison over the years, including Theodore Roosevelt and a man named William Hornaday, who together co-founded the American Bison Society at the Bronx Zoo in New York in 1905 in order to help protect these wild creatures. Today, they are labeled as "Near Threatened" by the IUCN due to these conservation efforts. 

Today, the bison is the largest North American mammal, but it wasn't always this way.  In fact, it wasn't always even the largest member of the genus Bison in North America!  Ancient ancestors of the North American bison have been traced by paleontologists to southern Asia to about 400,000 years ago, during the Pliocene Epoch.  Once the bison managed to make it across the land bridge into North America, it diversified and evolved.  One species, Bison latifrons, had a horn-span of a whopping nine feet!  Another species, Bison occidentalis (of which I have a scapula!) is thought to be the direct descendant of the modern bison, and evolved sometime during the late Pleistocene Epoch.

While talking bison with Dr. Robert Bakker and Matt Mossbrucker at the Morrison Natural History Museum, I learned that if you are looking at postcranial elements of a fossil bison (that is fossilized bones from behind the head), they are almost impossible to differentiate from each other.  Not only that, but they are extraordinarily difficult to differentiate from cows, too!  As a matter of fact, the species barrier is quite tentative between the bison and domestic cattle, resulting in the domestication of some bison, as well as hybrids, such as beefalo and cattalo.

Photo credit for all of the photos used in this post goes to the website for ZooBorns.  If you like what you are reading, please feel free to follow us here or via Facebook!  And remember, if you have a birthday coming up, just email me the date at with the date and your favorite animal, and I will do my best to get a post in!

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