Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bison at Grasslands National Park

Bison at Dusk, Grasslands - photo by Shelley Banks
Bison bison bison in Grasslands National Park   © SB 
Grasslands National Park, Canada: At dusk, four Plains Bison blocked our road through the West Block of Grasslands Park. We waited. They ate. We waited some more, until finally, they ambled across, cow birds in their wake.

These massive animals are know as “Bison bison bison” in species-classification speak — which has to be the best formal animal name ever.

About 70 bison were reintroduced to the Park in 2005 from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, where a group from this region had ended up after sales and trades of their ancestors near the time when most Plains Bison were exterminated by European hunters eager for their solid leather pelts for industrial belts, for their rough skin and hair for blankets, and — most of all — for the mad joy of slaughter. By 2010, Parks Canada says the herd had grown to 190 head.

two bison at dusk - photo by Shelley Banks
Two Plains Bison at dusk, Grasslands National Park.
(The one at left is in the video, below, crossing the road.) © SB 
The bison’s bulk impressed me — their shoulders and heads are truly massive. But I was surprised by their legs — I expected them to be longer, to make these creatures proportionately taller overall, like cows, perhaps. (I am no naturalist…) But instead, their deep chests and heavy body outweigh their legs… Pure compressed power, and the Parks’ staff tell us, they are very fast, and can be aggressive.
“Plains Bison were the dominant grazers on the Great Plains in pre-contact times. They are large animals, weighing up to 900 kg. Their massive heads and shoulder humps and dark shaggy coats are distinctive and well known… They have evolved to efficiently use the prairie grasses they graze on.” from Guide to Mammals of Grasslands National Park, by Tim Schowalter.
The video below was taken through the car windshield and side window as the largest bison lurched across the road where the two smaller bison were feeding. A swirl of birds follows, behind and beneath him; they had been feeding on bugs (?) on this bison’s skin.


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