1902 Encyclopedia > Bison


BISON, a genus of Ruminant Mammals belonging to the family Bovidce, and comprising two widely separated species—the European and American Bisons. They are distinguished from other bovine animals by the greater breadth and convexity of their foreheads, superior length of limb, and the longer spinal processes of the dorsal vertebra?, 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 European Bison (Bison bonassus), or Aurochs of the Germans, is the largest of existing European quadrupeds, measuring about 10 feet long, exclusive of the tail, and standing nearly 6 feet high. Formerly it was abundant throughout Europe, as is proved by its fossil remains found on the Continent and in England, associated with those of the extinct mammoth and rhinoceros. These remains, while indicating larger proportions in the ancient aurochs than in those now living, do not, in Professor Owen's opinion, exhibit any satisfactory specific distinction. Caesar mentions the aurochs as abounding, along with the now extinct Bos primigenius, 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, the Caucasus, and the Carpathian Mountains. It is now only found in one of the forests of Lithuania, where it is saved from immediate extinction by the protection of the emperor of Russia, but notwithstanding this it is gradually dying out. Many years ago the Lithuanian bisons numbered over 1000, but by the year 1872 they had diminished to 528, and all attempts to domesticate them have failed. The aurochs feeds on grass and the bark of young trees. The American Bison (Bison americanus) has its home on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, being seldom found to the west of these, and rarely to the east of the Appalachian range. Northwards it extends to lat. 63°, and southward as far as New Mexico. Those bisons or buffaloes, as the settlers call them, roam in enormous herds over the western prairies in quest of fresh pastures, being specially fond of the tender grass that springs up after a prairie fire. The two sexes live in separate herds during the greater part of the year, although one or two aged bulls, it is said, always accompany the females. During the rutting season when the sexes come together, the bulls engage in fierce fights among themselves, and at such seasons it is highly danger-ous to approach them. At other times they are shy, and retreat before man; but when wounded they become furious, and then all the dexterity of the practised hunter is needed to make good his retreat. The Indians capture them in various ways; by hunting on horseback, and shooting them with bows and arrows, or with fire-arms; by snaring them within immense enclosures of snow, which the bisons are unable to overleap; or by attracting the herd towards a precipice, and then setting it in motion from behind, so that those in front are pushed irresistibly forward and over. The American Bison, though still found in considerable numbers, is rapidly diminishing before the advance of the white settler; and should man in the meantime not succeed in domesticating it, it will probably ere long share the fate which threatens its European congener. To the Indian the bison has hitherto been indispensable as an article of food, and for the many useful purposes to which its horns, skin, and hair are applied. Its hide forms an excellent fur wrapper; its great value in this respect was proved during the Crimean war.

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