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European bison

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European bison

European bison or wisent
Wisent in a French wildlife reserve
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Genus: Bison
Species: B. bonasus
Binomial name
Bison bonasus
(Linnaeus, 1758)
Geographic range, with Holocene range in light green, High Middle Ages range in dark green and relict 20th century populations in red

The European bison (Bison bonasus), also known as wisent ( or ) or the European wood bison, is a Eurasian species of bison. It is one of two extant species of bison, alongside the American bison.

European bison were hunted to extinction in the wild, with the last wild animals being shot in the Białowieża Forest (on the Poland-Belarus border) in 1919 and in the northwestern Caucasus in 1927. They have since been reintroduced from captivity into several countries in Europe, all descendants of the Białowieża or lowland European bison. They are now forest-dwelling. They have few predators (besides humans), with only scattered reports from the 19th century of wolf and bear predation. European bison were first scientifically described by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758. Some later descriptions treat the European bison as conspecific with the American bison. It is not to be confused with the aurochs, the extinct ancestor of domestic cattle.

In 1996, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified the European bison as an endangered species. It has since been downgraded to a vulnerable species. In the past, especially during the Middle Ages, it was commonly killed for its hide, and to produce drinking horns.


The European bison is the heaviest surviving wild [2] An occasional big bull European bison can weigh up to 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) or more.[3][4][5]

On average, it is slightly lighter in body mass and yet taller at the shoulder than the American bison (Bison bison). Compared to the American species, the wisent has shorter hair on the neck, head and forequarters, but longer tail and horns.


The modern English word 'wisent' was borrowed in the 19th century from modern German Wisent [ˈviːzɛnt], itself from Old High German wisunt, wisant, related to Old English wesend, weosend and Old Norse vísundr. The Old English cognate disappeared as the bison's range shrank away from English-speaking areas by the Late Middle Ages.[6][7]

The English word 'bison' was borrowed around 1611[6] from Latin bisōn (pl. bisontes), itself from Germanic. The root *wis-, also found in weasel, originally referred to the animal's musk.


A dead specimen of the now-extinct Caucasian subspecies, 1889
Adult females with calves
European bison's skeleton

Historically, the lowland European bison's range encompassed all lowlands of Europe, extending from the Massif Central to the Volga River and the Caucasus. It may have once lived in the Asiatic part of what is now the Russian Federation. Its range decreased as human populations expanded cutting down forests. The first population to be extirpated was that of Gaul in the 8th century AD. The European bison became extinct in southern Sweden in the 11th century, and Southern England in the 12th. The species survived in the Ardennes and the Vosges Mountains until the 15th century.[8] In the Early Middle Ages, the wisent apparently still occurred in the forest steppes east of the Urals, in the Altay Mountains, and seems to have reached Lake Baikal in the east. The northern boundary in the Holocene was probably around 60°N in Finland.[9]

European bison survived in a few natural forests in Europe, but its numbers dwindled. The last European bison in Transylvania died in 1790. In Poland, European bison in the Białowieża Forest were legally the property of the Polish kings until the Third partition of Poland. Wild European bison herds also existed in the forest until the mid-17th century. Polish kings took measures to protect the bison. King Sigismund II Augustus instituted the death penalty for poaching a European bison in Białowieża in the mid-16th century. In the early 19th century, Russian czars retained old Polish laws protecting the European bison herd in Białowieża. Despite these measures and others, the European bison population continued to decline over the following century, with only Białowieża and Northern Caucasus populations surviving into the 20th century.

During World War I, occupying German troops killed 600 of the European bison in the Białowieża Forest for sport, meat, hides and horns.[10] A German scientist informed army officers that the European bison were facing imminent extinction, but at the very end of the war, retreating German soldiers shot all but nine animals.[10] The last wild European bison in Poland was killed in 1919. The last wild European bison in the world was killed by poachers in 1927 in the western Caucasus. By that year, fewer than 50 remained, all held by zoos.

To help manage this captive population, Dr. Heinz Heck began the first studbook for a nondomesticated species, initially as a card index in 1923, leading to a full publication in 1932.[11]

Genetic history

A 2003 study of mitochondrial DNA indicated four distinct maternal lineages in the species Bovini:

  1. taurine cattle and zebu,
  2. wisent,
  3. American bison and yak, and
  4. banteng, gaur, and gayal

Y chromosome analysis associated wisent and American bison.[12] An earlier study, using amplified fragment-length polymorphism fingerprinting, showed a close association of wisent and American bison and probably with yak. It noted the interbreeding of Bovini species made determining relationships problematic.[13]

Skulls of European bison (left) and American bison (right)

Wisent-American bison hybrids were briefly experimented with in Germany, and a herd of such animals is maintained in Russia. A herd of cattle-wisent crossbreeds (zubron) is maintained in Poland. First-generation crosses do not occur naturally, requiring Caesarean delivery. First-generation males are infertile.

Differences from American bison

Although superficially similar, a number of physical and behavioural differences are seen between the European bison and the American bison. The European bison has 14 pairs of ribs, while the American bison has 15.[14] Adult European bison are (on average) taller than American bison, and have longer legs.[15] European bison tend to browse more, and graze less than their American relatives, due to their necks being set differently. Compared to the American bison, the nose of the European bison is set further forward than the forehead when the neck is in a neutral position. The body of the European bison is less hairy, though its tail is hairier than that of the American species. The horns of the European bison point forward through the plane of their faces, making them more adept at fighting through the interlocking of horns in the same manner as domestic cattle, unlike the American bison, which favours charging.[16] European bison are less tameable than the American ones, and breed with domestic cattle less readily.[17]

Behaviour and biology

Social structure and territorial behaviours

Bison usually live in small herds of about 10 animals; the image shows a herd in a nursery in the Altai Mountains.

The European bison is a herd animal, which lives in both mixed and solely male groups. Mixed groups consist of adult females, calves, young aged 2–3 years and young adult bulls. The average herd size is dependent on environmental factors, though on average, they number eight to 13 animals per herd. Herds consisting solely of bulls are smaller than mixed ones, containing two individuals on average. European bison herds are not family units. Different herds frequently interact, combine and quickly split after exchanging individuals.[8]

Territory held by bulls is correlated by age, with young bulls aged between five and six tending to form larger home ranges than older males. The European bison does not defend territory, and herd ranges tend to greatly overlap. Core areas of territory are usually sited near meadows and water sources.[8]


The rutting season occurs from August through to October. Bulls aged 4–6 years, though sexually mature, are prevented from mating by older bulls. Cows usually have a gestation period of 264 days, and typically give birth to one calf at a time.[8]

On average, male calves weigh 27.6 kg (60.8 lb) at birth, and females 24.4 kg (53.8 lb). Body size in males increases proportionately to the age of 6 years. While females have a higher increase in body mass in their first year, their growth rate is comparatively slower than that of males by the age of 3–5. Bulls reach sexual maturity at the age of two, while cows do so in their third year.[8]


European bison feed predominantly on grasses, although they will also browse on shoots and leaves; in summer months, an adult male can consume 32 kg of food in a day.[18] European bison in the Białowieża Forest in Poland have traditionally been fed hay in the winter for centuries, and vast herds may gather around this diet supplement.[18] European bison need to drink every day, and in winter can be seen breaking ice with their heavy hooves.[19] Despite their usual slow movements, European bison are surprisingly agile and can clear 3-m-wide streams or 2-m-high fences from a standing start.[19][20]


Bison in the Białowieża Forest, 1955

The protection of the European bison has a long history; between the 15th and 18th centuries, those in the Forest of Białowieża were protected and their diet supplemented.[21] Efforts to restore this species to the wild began in 1929, with the establishment of the Bison Restitution Centre at Białowieża, Poland.[22][23] Subsequently, in 1948, the Bison Breeding Centre was established within the Prioksko-Terrasny Biosphere Reserve. On 24 April 2011, five bison were introduced in Pleistocene Park, a project to recreate the steppe ecosystem which began to be altered 10,000 years ago.


Beginning in 1951, European bison have been reintroduced into the wild. Free-ranging herds are currently found in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, Russia, Slovakia,[24] Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, Germany[25] and in forest preserves in the Western Caucasus. Białowieża Forest, an ancient woodland that straddles the border between Poland and Belarus, is now home to 800 wild bison.[26] Herds have also been introduced in Moldova (2005),[27] Spain (2010),[28] Denmark (2012), and Bulgaria (2012).[29]

Numbers and distribution

European bison reserve in Spain, where there is a reintroduction programme in Castile and Leon.

The total worldwide population is around 4,663 (including 2,701 free-ranging) and has been increasing.[30] Some local populations are estimated as follows:

  • Belarus: 958 animals
  • Caucasus: Around 500 animals, population slowly increasing
  • Denmark: Two herds were established in the summer of 2012, as part of conservation of the species. First, 14 animals were released near the town of Randers, and later, eight animals on Bornholm.
  • Germany : A herd of eight wisents was released into nature in April 2013.
  • Lithuania: 61 animals.
  • Netherlands: A herd of 24 (2013)
  • Poland: Around 1,300 animals, including a stable population of 450 animals in Bialowieza Primeval forest, population increasing[30]
  • Romania: Almost 100 animals, population slowly increasing
  • Russia: Around 461, population stable and increasing
  • Slovakia: A wild breeding herd of 11 animals (2009) in Poloniny National Park and increasing population
  • Ukraine: A population of around 240 animals, population is unstable and decreasing.

Plans are made to reintroduce two herds in Germany[31] and in Oostvaardersplassen Nature Reserve[32] in Flevoland (Netherlands). In 2007, a bison pilot project in a fenced area was begun in Zuid-Kennemerland National Park in the Netherlands.[33] Zoos in 30 countries also have quite a few bison. Because of their limited genetic pool, they are considered highly vulnerable to illnesses such as foot-and-mouth disease.

A European bison at Wildpark Pforzheim in Germany

Since 1983, a small reintroduced population lives in the Altai Mountains. This population suffers from inbreeding depression and needs the introduction of unrelated animals for "blood refreshment". In the long term, authorities hope to establish a population of about 1,000 animals in the area. One of the northernmost current populations of the European bison lives in the Vologodskaya Oblast in the Northern Dvina River valley at about 60°N. It survives without supplementary winter feeding. Another Russian population lives in the forests around the Desna River on the border between Russia and Ukraine.[9] The north-easternmost population lives in Pleistocene Park south of Chersky in Siberia. They were introduced in April 2011. The wisents were brought to the park from the Prioksko-Terrasny Nature Reserve near Moscow. Winter tempuratures often drop below -50°C.

In June 2012, one male and six females were moved to the Danish island of Bornholm. The plan is to release these animals into the wild after five years of adjusting to the island's environment. The plan is that the bison will aid biodiversity by naturally maintaining open grassland.[34]

In 2011, three bison were introduced into Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Scotland. Plans to move more into the reserve were made, but the project failed due to not being "well thought through". [35] In April 2013, eight European bison (one male, five females, and two calves) were released into the wild in the Bad Berleburg region of Germany,[36] after 850 years of absence since the species became extinct in that region.[37]

Bisons sparring in Russia

European bison have lived as long as 30[38] years in captivity, although in the wild their lifespans are shorter. Productive breeding years are between four and 20 years of age in females, and only between six and 12 years of age in males. Wisent occupy home ranges of as much as 100 km2 (40 sq mi), and some herds are found to prefer meadows and open areas in forests.

European bison can cross-breed with American bison. The products of a German interbreeding programme were destroyed after the Second World War. This programme was related to the impulse which created the Heck cattle. The cross-bred individuals created at other zoos were eliminated from breed books by the 1950s. A Russian back-breeding programme resulted in a wild herd of hybrid animals, which presently lives in the Caucasian Biosphere Reserve (550 animals in 1999).

Also, wisent-cattle hybrids occur, similar to North America beefalo. Cattle and European bison can hybridise fairly readily, but the calves cannot be born naturally (birth is not triggered correctly by the first-cross hybrid calf, and they must therefore be delivered by Caesarian section). In 1847, a herd of wisent-cattle hybrids named żubroń was created by Leopold Walicki. The animals were intended to become durable and cheap alternatives to cattle. The experiment was continued by researchers from the Polish Academy of Sciences until the late 1980s. Although the program resulted in a quite successful animal that was both hardy and could be bred in marginal grazing lands, it was eventually discontinued. Currently' the only surviving żubroń herd consists of just a few animals in Białowieża Forest, Poland and Belarus.

The modern herds are managed as two separate lines – one consisting of only Bison bonasus bonasus (all descended from only seven animals) and one consisting of all 12 ancestors including the one B. b. caucasicus bull.[39] Only a limited amount of inbreeding depression from the population bottleneck has been found, having a small effect on skeletal growth in cows and a small rise in calf mortality. Genetic variability continues to shrink. From five initial bulls, all current European bison bulls have one of only two remaining Y chromosomes.[39]

See also


  1. ^ Olech, W. (IUCN SSC Bison Specialist Group) (2008). Bison bonasus. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Retrieved 14 January 2009.
  2. ^
  3. ^ (2011).
  4. ^ Boitani, Luigi, Simon & Schuster's Guide to Mammals. Simon & Schuster/Touchstone Books (1984), ISBN 978-0-671-42805-1
  5. ^ Burnie D and Wilson DE (Eds.), Animal: The Definitive Visual Guide to the World's Wildlife. DK Adult (2005), ISBN 0789477645
  6. ^ a b "bison, n.". OED Online. June 2011. Oxford University Press.
  7. ^ "wisent, n.". OED Online. June 2011. Oxford University Press.
  8. ^ a b c d e European Bison (Bison Bonasus): Current State of the Species and Strategy for Its Conservation By Zdzsław Pucek, Published by Council of Europe, 2004, ISBN 92-871-5549-6, 978-92-871-5549-8
  9. ^ a b Sipko, T., P. (2009). European bison in Russia – past, present and future. European Bison Conservation Newsletter Vol 2, pp: 148–159
  10. ^ a b "Lake Pape – Bison", WWF
  11. ^ Tudge, Colin (1992). Last Animals at the Zoo. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.  
  12. ^ Verkaar, EL; Nijman, IJ; Beeke, M; Hanekamp, E; Lenstra, JA (2004). "Maternal and Paternal Lineages in Cross-Breeding Bovine Species. Has Wisent a Hybrid Origin?". Molecular biology and evolution 21 (7): 1165–70.  
  13. ^ Buntjer, J B; Otsen, M; Nijman, I J; Kuiper, M T R; Lenstra, J A (2002). "Phylogeny of bovine species based on AFLP fingerprinting". Heredity 88 (1): 46–51.  
  14. ^ The Penny Cyclopædia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge by Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (Great Britain), published by C. Knight, 1835
  15. ^ Trophy Bowhunting: Plan the Hunt of a Lifetime and Bag One for the Record Books, by Rick Sapp, Edition: illustrated, published by Stackpole Books, 2006, ISBN 0-8117-3315-7, 978-0-8117-3315-1
  16. ^ American Bison: A Natural History, By Dale F. Lott, Harry W. Greene, ebrary, Inc, Contributor Harry W. Greene, Edition: illustrated, Published by University of California Press, 2003 ISBN 0-520-24062-6, 978-0-520-24062-9
  17. ^ Zoologist: A Monthly Journal of Natural History, By Edward Newman, James Edmund Harting, Published by J. Van Voorst, 1859
  18. ^ a b Pucek, Z., Belousova, I.P., Krasiñska, M., Krasiñski, Z.A. and Olech, W. (2004). European Bison Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.: IUCN/SSC Bison Specialist Group. 
  19. ^ a b Brent Huffman. "Ultimate Ungulate". 
  20. ^ Olech, W. (2011). Pers. comm. 
  21. ^ Trapani, J. "Bison bonasus". Animal Diversity Web. 
  22. ^ Krasińska, M. and Krasiński, Z. (2007). European bison - the nature monograph. Białowieża, Poland.: Mammal Research Institute. 
  23. ^ Macdonald, D. (2001). The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 
  24. ^ "Wisents in Slovakia: the population has increased three times since 2004".  
  25. ^
  26. ^ Baczynska, Gabriela (28 September 2008). "FEATURE-Climate change clouds fate of ancient Polish woods".  
  27. ^ "Bison in the Republic of Moldova", IATP
  28. ^ "El bisonte europeo se reimplanta en España". 5 June 2010. Retrieved 16 January 2011. 
  29. ^ "Denmark's Bornholm island gets rare bison from Poland". 7 June 2012. Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  30. ^ a b Żubry w Polsce i na Świecie
  31. ^ European bison reintroduction in the Rothaargebirge
  32. ^ "Second group of 3 European bison from Poland (Białowieża) was released today". Large Herbivore Network. Retrieved 14 June 2012. 
  33. ^ "Bison". Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  34. ^ "Denmark's Bornholm island gets rare bison from Poland". BBC News. 7 June 2012. Retrieved 8 June 2012. 
  35. ^
  36. ^ Bison return to Germany after 300-year absence.
  37. ^ Christoph Vetter (1 March 2010). "Wisente erobern die ITB". Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung (WAZ), online edition. Retrieved 7 July 2013. 
  38. ^ Medeiros, Luísa (3 September 2009). "Female European bison in Brasília Zoo may be the species oldest".  (in Portuguese)
  39. ^ a b "Genetic status of the species". Bison Specialist Group - Europe. Retrieved 17 June 2013. 

This article incorporates text from the ARKive fact-file "European bison" under the and the .

External links

  • European bison media at ARKive
  • Bison entry from Walker's Mammals of the World
  • )Bison bonasus caucasicusThe Extinction Website – Caucasian European bison (.
  • )Bison bonasus hungarorumThe Extinction Website – Carpathian European bison (.
  • European bison/wisent
  • BBC NEWS Reversal fortunes
  • I. Parnikoza, V. Boreiko, V. Sesin, M. Kaliuzhna History, current state and perspectives of conservation of European bison in Ukraine // European Bison Conservation Newsletter Vol 2 (2009) pp: 5-16
  • Species fact sheet on LHNet database
  • "Wisent online" from Browsk Forest District in Białowieża National Park, Poland
  • National Geographic - Rewilding Europe Brings Back the Continent’s Largest Land Animal
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