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Animal Facts: Wood bison

  • Aug 12, 2021
  • 353 words
  • 2 minutes
As North America's longest and heaviest terrestrial land animal, the wood bison can weigh up to 1000 kilograms. (Photo: Stuart Rockwood/Can Geo Photo Club)
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As the largest land animal in Canada, the wood bison can be easily recognized by its large head, shaggy fur and pointed horns. 

Fast Facts

Common name: Wood bison

Scientific nameBison bison athabascae

Type: Mammal

Diet: Herbivore

Group name: Herd

Average weight: 400 kilograms to 1,000 kilograms

Average length: 2 metres to 3.5 metres

COSEWIC Status: Special Concern

Did you know?

Despite their huge size, bison can run up to 55 kilometres per hour and are good swimmers.

Physical characteristics and behaviour

The wood bison is the largest land mammal in North America, weighing up to 1,000 kilograms. Adults have dark brown coats, with long, shaggy fur on their shoulders and legs. They have large humps on their backs, and very large heads. They also have curving horns that point upward, and hair on the chin that resembles a beard. Wood bison begin to shed their winter coats as temperatures warm in the spring. By mid-summer, their coats will have been entirely replaced with new hair. 

Wood bison can distinguish smells from up to three kilometres away. They have poor eyesight, but excellent hearing. During the mating season, from July to September, “bull roarings” can be heard for kilometres, day and night, as bulls challenge each other in rutting rituals. 

The wood bison is closely related to North America’s other species of bison, the plains bison. Plains bison are slightly smaller, but tend to be more violent during the rut. Their vocalizations are different, and so is the length of the hair on their ribs (the plains bison has shorter hair in this area). 

Diet

Wood bison mainly eat grasses and sedges, but also feed on lichens, shrubs, leaves and bark when available.

Habitat and distribution

Wood bison are currently found in British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon and Northwest Territories. They are also present in Manitoba, although this is outside the species’ historical range. They live in boreal and aspen forests, where they often forage in open meadows, particularly during the winter. Some populations of wood bison prefer willow savannas in the summer and winter months, and open forests in the fall.

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