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American Bison


Originally from Alaska along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, south to northwest Mexico, across the United States almost to the Atlantic Ocean. Today they range in western part of the United States in isolated areas.


Bison are found on grassy plains and grasslands.


The bison is a massive, ox-like, cloven-hoofed mammal. There is a large hump over the fore-shoulders. The hind quarters are particularly slender for such a large animal. The tail is short and tufted at the end. The blackish hair over the head, neck, shoulders and forelegs is long and shaggy. A long beard is present, especially in males. From the shoulder on back, the body is covered with short, fine, brown hair. Occasionally the hair is white, gray or piebald in color. Both sexes have smooth, curving horns up to 22 inches in length. The sense of smell is highly developed. Hearing is good. Eyesight is probably better than is usually attributed to these animals. The male reaches 5 or 6 feet at the shoulder and may weigh 2,000-3,000 pounds. The female is smaller and lighter weight than the male by 1/4 to 1/3. Lifespan in the wild is 15-25 years; in captivity, 15-40 years.

American Bison Click to View Bigger Picture

During most of the year the bison herds are small, consisting of females and young, including bulls up to 4 years old. Older bulls are in smaller groups of 12 or fewer animals near the periphery of the mixed group. A straight dominance hierarchy exists. The alpha (number one) animal is the largest and heaviest bull. He is dominant over all others. The beta (number two) animal is usually a bull and is dominant over the number three animals and all others. Animal three is usually a female and is dominant over weaker females and all males her own size. A particular animal's position in the hierarchy is constantly being challenged. Grooming is an important daily activity. The animal scrubs head, neck, and the sides of its body on trees, branches and tree trunks. It also rolls or wallows in loose sand and dust. The wallowing is sometimes used as a displacement activity instead of fighting. Bison are most active during the morning and evening, and extremely playful up to two years of age. Play consists of "fighting," active "games" and playful mounting. They are also very curious, inspecting, licking and sniffing newborn calves. Bison emit hollow grunting sounds when moving in the herd. Snorting and sneezing vocalizations occur during play and in times of sexual excitement. Throaty, rumbling roars are uttered by males in mating seasons. When threatened, Bison will posture with their head low, muzzle back and tail straight up. Submission is indicated by a head position to one side or by a 180 degree retreat.


The rutting season is from May to September. The males indulge in rank order fights for up to 36 hours. Often these fights end up with one bull seriously or fatally injured. The victor associates with the cows until successful mating occurs. The gestation period is 9 months. The cow leaves the herd to calve. By the time a cow finishes licking the calf clean, the precocial youngster is ready to stand and join the herd. Usually the births are single, but occasionally twins are born. The young is nursed one year and remains with the mother until sexual maturity at 3 years.

Interesting Facts:

The bison is the largest mammal on the North American continent. As a result of the influx of white men, especially the building of the railroad, the numbers were reduced to 300 in 1900. Federal protection and conservation efforts saved the species and several herds exist in wildlife sanctuaries in the United States. The Indians and early settlers depended on the bison for food, clothing, shelter and fuel. The plains Indians considered the skin of the white bison sacred and used it as a talisman in their religious ceremonies.

About Our Animals:

The Zoo has two male bison visible only from the train ride.

American Bison Click to View Bigger Picture
American Bison
Native Utah Animal
See what other animals are Native to Utah.

Class: mammal
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Genus: Bison
Species: bison
Height: 5 or 6 feet at the shoulder
Weight: 2,000-3,000 pounds
Average Lifespan: 20
Wild Diet: Grass, herbs, lichen, moss, dry grass, leaves, shoots, and bark of trees and bushes
Zoo Diet: Grass hay, mixed pellets and trace mineral salt block.
Predators: Man
USFWS Status: Not Listed
CITES Status: Not Listed
Where at the Zoo? Bison Yard (Visible on the train ride only)

Learn more about mammal or animals from North America!
Or, cross-reference the two!

2600 East Sunnyside Avenue | Salt Lake City, Utah 84108 | (801) 584-1700