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American Bison (Bison bison) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

American Bison (Bison bison)

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

  • Scientific name: Bison comes from the Latin word "bison" meaning "wild ox".
  • Originally named Bos bison by Linneaus, for its likeness to cattle.
  • Despite the many anatomical similarities between extinct and modern bison, in 1825 Cuvier distinguished three bison species (McDonald 1981):
    • Living European bison
    • Living North American bison
    • An extinct American bison
  • Some 14 North American species were named prior to 1852 when Leidy studied available specimens and described two fossil species and recognized one living species of bison.
  • Bison taxonomy underwent a long period of taxonomic splitting that resulted in some 10 fossil species recognized in North America by Skinner and Kaisen in 1947. (McDonald 1981)
    • This taxonomy in great need of revision and clarification (McDonald 1981) (Prusak et al 2004)
  • Some authorities have classified bison with the cattle genus Bos, other authorities do not. (Nowak 1999) (Prusak 2004)
  • Relationship of modern American bison and the European bison is unclear at present, but both are quite similar genetically and can interbreed; despite this fact, they should still be considered separate species. (Prusak et al 2004)
  • Modern North American bison have two recognized subspecies: the American Plains Bison (B. b. bison) and the American Wood Bison (B. b. athabascae) (McDonald 1981) (Prusak et al 2004)

Evolutionary History

  • Even-toed hoofed mammals trace their ancestry back to at least 45 million years ago (Eocene).
  • Bison diverged from cattle a few million years ago or less; phylogenies are poorly understood due to much genetic variation within species. (Buntjer et al 2002)
  • The Bison genus first appeared in southern Asia, around 2 million years ago (McDonald 1981)
  • Bison priscuswas the ancestor of at least some of the North American bison. (Prusak et al 2004)
    • This species flourished in northern Eurasia and Alaska and may have been the dominant hoofed mammal there (Guthrie 1970)
  • Bison immigrated to North America several times in the Pleistocene Epoch during times of low sea levels when exposed land connected North America and Asia.
  • B. latifrons appeared by 500,000 years ago in North American and survived until around 20,000 years ago.
  • The first appearance of B. antiquus in North America was around 250,000 years ago. (Jefferson 2001)
  • The B. antiquusline may have led to modern American Plains Bison (Prusak et al 2004)
    • McDonald (1981) suggests this speciation occurred around 5,000 years ago.
  • European bison may be descendants of Pleistocene bison that returned to Europe from North America. (McDonald 1981) (Prusak et al 2004)
  • B. latifrons became extinct around 20,000 years ago. (McDonald 1981)
  • All bison nearly became extinct in North America at the end of the Pleistocene when much of the other megafauna did become extinct (McDonald 1981)
  • Modern bison in America (Bison bison) and Europe (Bison bonasus) are genetically very closely related. (Prusak et al 2004)


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Artiodactyla* (or Cetartiodactyla) (Even-toed hoofed animals: includes pigs, sheep goats, cattle, deer)

Family: Bovidae (Cattle, water buffalo, bison, antelopes, goats, sheep and more)

Genus: Bison

Species: Bison bison - American bison

Subspecies: Bison bison bison - American Plains Bison
Subspecies: Bison bison athabascae - Wood Bison

Describer (Date): Linnaeus 1758. Systema Naturae for Bison bison

*New anatomical and DNA evidence on the relationship between Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates) and Cetacea (whales and dolphins) recently led to a merging of the two orders into a new group, Cetartiodactyla (Montgelard, 1997; reviewed in Kulemzina, 2009). As of October 2012, experts had not agreed on whether to define Cetartiodactyla as an official taxonomic order that would replace Artiodactyla and Cetacea. Some continue to list bison in the order Artiodactyla (Franklin, 2011) or use the term Cetartiodactyla without defining it as an order (IUCN, 2008).

Page Citations

Buntjer et al. (2002)
Guthrie (1970)
Meagher (1986)
McDonald (1981)
(Prusak et al. (2004)
Nowak (1999)

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