Nature News from Greater Yellowstone #33

January 17, 2022

As promised, I will share much more of the Bison/Buffalo story with you. Why 2 names? Not unlike a Marmot called a “Whistle Pig” in Canada or a Mountain Lion may be called a Cougar or a Panther or Catamont, many wild animals have common names. Bison bison is the genus species of our National Animal so if youare reading scientific papers or professional articles, you’ll see them referred to as Bison. Buffalo has been used since European travelers started exploring the American west. The word Buffalo is derived from the French “bœuf,” a name used for Bison when French fur trappers working in North America by the 1600s saw the animals. The word “bœuf” came from what the French knew as true buffalo, animals living in Africa and Asia. Another name for these animals is “tatanka.” Tatanka is the Lakota word for Bison. Lakota are also known as the Teton Sioux, one of the 3 prominent cultures of the Sioux people. Their language is Lakota. Bison are incredibly important in Lakota culture. Lakota are traditionally nomadic and would have spent their lives following Bison before Euro-Americans settled the West. Indian tribes settled grasslands because of the plenteful bison. Native peoples came to rely on the Bison for everything from food and clothing to shelter and religious worship.

Sioux chief Shoo-de-ga-cha, Smoke, in buffalo robe and holding a buffalo skin shield outside a teepee 87 and his wife Hee-la’h-dee, Pure Fountain 88. Her arms and neck are tattooed by pricking with gunpowder and vermilion. Handcoloured lithograph from George Catlin’s Manners, Customs and Condition of the North American Indians, London, 1841.

The buffalo jump was used for 5,500 years by tribal peoples of the plains to kill buffalo by driving them off a cliff. Before the late introduction of horses, the Blackfoot drove the Buffalo from a grazing area to the “drive lanes”, lined by hundreds of cairns, by dressing up as coyotes and wolves. These specialized “buffalo runners” were young men trained in animal behavior to guide the Buffalo into the drive lanes. Then, at full gallop, the Buffalo would fall off the cliff. The weight of the herd pressing behind them kept the momentum, and landing breaking their legs and rendering them immobileamd eventuallu provodong food for the people. One place is a location in the Porcupine hills. The cliff itself is about 300 metres (1000 feet) long, and at its highest point drops 10 metres into the valley below. The site was in use at least 6,000 years ago, and the bone deposits are 12 metres (39 feet) deep. After falling off the cliff, the buffalo carcasses were processed at a nearby camp. This description of an ancient hunting technique was taken from the Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump website.

Head-Smashed-In was abandoned in the 19th century after European contact. The site was first recorded by Europeans in the 1880s and first excavated by the American Museum of Natural History in 1938. It was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1968, a Provincial Historic Site in 1979, and a World Heritage Site in 1981. The park was established as a World Heritage Site in 1981 for its testimony of prehistoric life and the customs of early people. It’s a fascinating place to visit if you ever find yourself near Ft McCloud, Alberta.

The Bison is the largest mammal in North America. A mature bull can weigh 1500-2000 lbs and adult females 1000-1200 lbs. Males can be up to 6 feet at the hump. This hump is a massive structure of muscle supported by the spine and allows them to “operate” their giant heads.

Bison structure

Males have much broader forhead than females. Their horns are much wider and evenly curved than a females and males have especially long front “bangs” I frequently describe as a “rastafarian” hairdo. They have a longer beard as well. Females have a much more narrow face and horns are smaller in diameter. Females have a hump as well, but not as prominent. Bison are designed to run fast and far. They can reach speeds of 35 miles an hour, jump and turn 180 degrees in one hop and jump or bust through a 6 foot fence without any effort. Buffalo are adapted to survive negative 30 degree temps before they are stressed by the cold or swim a fast river. They are the ulimate survivors and are truly fascinating and inspirational.

Buffalo in Hayden Valley, Yellowstone River
bull Bison Gail Johnson
Bison calf in the Snow Tom Nicholls
Buffalo hairdo! photo from a Prairie visit

So many Buffalo stories to tell and so little time. Hope this inspires you to learn more about our National Mammal!

Now is the time to start getting applications in for the Kid for the Wild Scholarship. To learn more about this go to this link:

Sending you good wishes from Yellowstone,

Leslie remember you can be in touch with me at

Leslie at Steamboat geyser Ellen Bush

Leave a Reply