Picture the sweeping fields of the Great Plains. You probably see long, yellow grasses, wisps of white clouds dotting a blue sky and, of course, a herd of wild bison. These shaggy-coated animals are symbolic of the American West—and for good reason. At the time of European settlement, 20 to 30 million bison roamed North America, according to the National Park Service.
These days bison aren’t so widespread, but they’re still a token of the American West and an interesting species to boot. Here are ten things you might not have known about the majestic mammal.
1. Their scientific name is Bison bison
And they are the same species colloquially called the American buffalo. But the American buffalo isn’t a buffalo at all, though they belong to the same Bovidae family as the cape and water buffalos found in Asia and Africa.
2. They’re a keystone species
Bison play a major role in the preservation of the grassland ecosystem. Bison roll and create shallow divots, known as wallows, which, along with their grazing patterns, help promote plant photosynthesis and biodiversity.
3. They have a matriarchal society
Like elephants, female Bison (cows) stick together, while male bison (bulls) spend the majority of the year alone or in small groups with other males. Of course, this ceases to be true during the mating season.
4. Bison are ecologically designed to survive harsh winters
They are able to stay warm because they sport “thick skin and underfur, long guard hairs and layers of fat,” according to the National Park Service. Bison are also willing to migrate far distances for better food sources.
5. They were hunted to near extinction
Bison once roamed across most of North America. But due to over-hunting and habitat loss, their population fell rapidly, to estimates of just 1,000 by the year 1889. Today, bison have made a spectacular recovery. According to the Defenders of Wildlife, there are 500,00 bison in America today, though most of these bison live in captivity.
6. They Weigh a Literal Ton
Cows average 1,000 pounds, while her male counterparts weigh upwards of 2,000 pounds. This makes them the largest land mammal in North America.
7. They can run up to 35 miles per hour
They’re also agile and able to pivot quickly, which the National Park Service says helps them fight off predators that aim for their hindquarters.
8. Bison face their predators head-on
Unlike elk and deer, bison do not run away when attacked by a predator (most commonly, wolves or grizzly bears). Instead, they tend to defend themselves as a group.
9. They are not domesticated
But they can be trained (as tigers and lions can). However, as an undomesticated species, bison need to be managed with care and caution. Which brings us to our last fact.
10. They’re dangerous
Usually, bison leave people alone. But they are known to attack people if their personal space is invaded. The National Park Service reports that every year multiple tourists are injured by bison within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (although thankfully, most survive the encounter). In 1987, more than 40 people were injured by bison in Yellowstone—which holds the record to this day.
Next time you picture the Great Plains, remember that those wooly, massive creatures have a complex history, impressive survival skills, and a dangerous streak. Oh, and they’re called bison, not buffalo.