The bison is an iconic animal of the American plains — so iconic that it has been named the first national mammal. Yet most of us know little about this symbolic creature. Here are a few basic facts that might surprise you:
1. Bison may look like lumbering lumps, but they're quite fast and agile. They can run an impressive 35 miles per hour and jump as high as 6 vertical feet! Because tourists underestimate the speed and overestimate the docility of bison, these animals have been responsible for injuring more people in Yellowstone than any other species in the park, according to the National Park Service.
2. A bison's coat is so thick and insulating that snow can cover it without melting, says National Geographic.
3. Bison played a huge role in the plains ecosystem. They grazed native grasses, and in doing so their hooves turned up the soil and their droppings fertilized it. Prairie dogs preferred to live in areas grazed by bison so they could keep a better watch out for predators over the shorter grasses. Meanwhile, bison was a major food source for both humans and wolves, and their carcasses were feasts for scavenger species. Without bison, the plains would never have been the fertile, unique ecosystem it was before farming arrived.
4. European settlers really did a number on the bison and managed to whittle down their numbers until only a few hundred survived. There's only one location in the entire continent where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times, and that's Yellowstone National Park. (You can see an impressive group of bison at Yellowstone in the video below.)
5. Only around 500,000 bison exist today, a fraction of the some 30 million that once roamed the plains before Europeans arrived. Defenders of Wildife says that "today they are 'ecologically extinct' as a wild species throughout most of their historic range, except for a few national parks and other small wildlife areas." The vast majority are raised by ranchers for their meat and hides. Only around 30,000 bison graze on parks and public lands and only around 15,000 of them are considered wild, roaming free and unfenced. But in a sign of progress, Parks Canada is bringing plains bison back to Banff National Park, where they roamed more than 100 years ago. A small group of 16 bison will initially roam in an enclosed pasture, but the goal is for the new group to eventually roam in a much larger space and interact with native species. The video above gives a look at the process transporting the bison to Banff.
6. The bison's genetic make-up has changed over time. Most bison today aren't exactly pure bison. According to PBS, Texas A&M professor of veterinary pathobiology Dr. James Derr "has spent the past several decades analyzing bison DNA to determine which herds contain cattle genes, and believes that only about 1.6 percent of today’s bison population (8,000 animals) is not hybridized."
So though the notion of vast herds of wild bison roaming free across the plains is something for the history books, humans can keep pushing to bring them back.
This story was originally written in March 2015 and has been updated with more recent information.