Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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An American bison photographed at Oklahoma City Zoo in Oklahoma
Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

American Bison

Bison, symbolic animals of the Great Plains, are often mistakenly called buffaloes. By any name, they are formidable beasts and the heaviest land animals in North America.

Size and Diet

Bison stand some 5 to 6.5 feet tall at the shoulder, and can tip the scales at over a ton. Despite their massive size, bison are quick on their feet. When the need arises they can run at speeds up to 40 miles an hour. They sport curved, sharp horns that may grow to be two feet long.

These large grazers feed on plains grasses, herbs, shrubs, and twigs. They regurgitate their food and chew it as cud before final digestion.

Herd Behavior

Females (cows) and adult males (bulls) generally live in small, separate bands and come together in very large herds during the summer mating season. Males battle for mating primacy, but such contests rarely turn dangerous. Females give birth to one calf after a nine-month pregnancy.

Cultural Importance

Bison once covered the Great Plains and much of North America, and were critically important to Plains Indian societies. During the 19th century, settlers killed some 50 million bison for food, sport, and to deprive Native Americans of their most important natural asset. The once enormous herds were reduced to only a few hundred animals. Today, bison numbers have rebounded somewhat, and about 500,000 bison live on preserves and ranches where they are raised for their meat.

WATCH: Trimming Bison Beards for a Good Look at Prairie

Researchers trimmed bison's beards to clear the view for Crittercam collars, which they hope will offer a bison's-eye view of the American prairie.