By: Michael Peterson
Nine feet is one foot shorter than a basketball hoop. Nine feet is higher than the average residential ceiling height. Nine feet is the length from the tip of one horn to the other of a large Long-horned Bison, one of five species in the Bison genus. The Long-horned Bison is one of three species now extinct, but its extant (still living) relative, the American Bison, is now the national mammal of the United States of America.
In early May, President Obama signed a bill honoring the American Bison as the mammal of the United States of America. Acknowledging the American Bison highlights a link back to when large mammals were a more common presence in North America. During the Pleistocene (2.5 million - 11,000 years ago), dire wolves and sabre-toothed cats hunted Ancient Bison. The short-faced Bear was the most common bear in North American. Woolly mammoths, mastodons, and 1500-pound ground sloths roamed much of the continent. The naming of a national mammal is the chance to celebrate the biodiversity heritage of North America.
Large animals are now less common, and only two species of bison exist in the world today, the American Bison and the European Bison, which is the national animal of Belarus. The Steppe Bison, Long-horned Bison, and Ancient Bison went extinct near the end of the Pleistocene.
What do we know about the history and basic biology of this species? First off, Bison immigrated to North America several times during the Pleistocene. Bison are most closely related to African water buffalo. The gestation time for an American Bison is 285 days, and calves walk just 10 minutes after birth. Adults can run 35 miles per hour and the most common descriptor of bison behavior is unpredictable.
We also know the management of bison will be a conservation biology issue for some time. Yellowstone National Park is the only place where American bison have lived continuously over at least the last few thousand years, and is home to one of the few bison herds that has not hybridized with cattle. Formal conservation efforts began nearly 100 years ago with the beginning of the American Bison Society, whose members included Andrew Carnegie and Theodore Roosevelt. The trajectory of the American Bison since that point is interwoven with hunting, ranching, conservation, and management.
So now you know a little about this new mammalian emblem. Go ahead and share your favorite state animal or plant in the comments.
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