Like antelope, sheep, and goats, the large herbivores known as bison, buffalo, and oxen are classified in the family Bovidae and the order Artiodactyla. They are cud-chewing, even-toed ungulates. Most of them are horned and evolved from small grazing animals that lived in Eurasia about 30 million years ago.
Today they are found throughout the world. Many have been domesticated for thousands of years. They are commonly used for food production and as beasts of burden. Most of the domesticated forms are rare or extinct in the wild.
Types of Bovids
The great herds of American bison (Bison bison) that once roamed the Great Plains of North America created one of the most stunning wildlife displays in historical times. An estimated 50 million bison migrated across the plains every year -south in winter to lower elevations, north in summer to fertile grasslands.
Individual herds contained hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of animals. They were said to extend from horizon to horizon across the oceanlike vastness of the plains. Large predators preyed on the bison. Smaller predators scavenged the remains.
Grasses and flowers depended on their droppings for fertilizer. The cultures of some tribes of Plains Indians were so closely tied to them that a government policy of extermination of the bison was conceived as a way to subdue the Indians.
The destruction of the great bison herds began almost as soon as European settlers arrived in North America. The animal disappeared from east of the Mississippi by the early 19th century. By 1890 the millions of bison in the Great Plains had been reduced to only a few hundred individuals.
Those few survivors were made captive in an effort to save the species from extinction. Their descendants now number 500,000. They are well established in the wild in Yellowstone National Park and northern Alberta. In 2016 the bison was named the national mammal of the United States.
A subspecies, the woodland bison (B. bison athabascae), was once abundant in western Canada, but numbered approximately 500 to 600 at the beginning of the 21st century. About 4,400 now exist, most in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta and in southern Northwest Territories.
The European bison, or wisent (Bison bonasus), is similar in appearance to the American bison, but is leaner, slightly taller, and has longer horns and tail. It originally inhabited much of Europe and probably Asia, but by the 20th century was in danger of extinction by hunting and loss of habitat.
Only about 4,600 are left today, descendants of animals that were captured and placed in zoos early in the century. More than 800 bison have been reestablished in the Bialowieza Forest on the border of Poland and Belarus.
Both American and European bison have excellent senses of hearing and smell. They can run at speeds over 35 miles (60 kilometers) per hour, and are able to swim across rivers 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) wide.
Asian Water Buffalo
This large bovid (Bubalus bubalis) is so often domesticated that it is easy to forget that this buffalo is a wild species that was once widespread across much of southern Asia.
With a shoulder height to 75 inches (190 centimeters), and a weight up to 2,650 pounds (1,200 kilograms), the water buffalo can be a formidable presence. In domestication, however, it is gentle and docile enough to be tended by children.
In the wild, the water buffalo's numbers have been dramatically reduced by habitat destruction and from diseases transmitted by domestic livestock. It is now listed as an endangered species. Remnant populations can still be found in remote swamps and densely overgrown river valleys from India to Indochina.
Water buffalo were first domesticated in India about 5,000 years ago, and in China about 4,000 years ago. Millions of them are now found in domestication throughout India, Southeast Asia, and the East Indies.
Many old-time African hunters claimed that the most dangerous mammal in Africa was not the lion or the rhino, but the buffalo (Syncerus caffer). Stories were told of buffalo stalking and killing humans, of charging without provocation, and of rampaging through human settlements.
While most of those stories were exaggerated, the African buffalo certainly demands respect. It is powerful and massive, can run at speeds up to 35 miles (56 kilometers) per hour. It can be extremely dangerous if wounded or cornered.
Originally found in most of Africa south of the Sahara, the buffalo has been hunted extensively. Much of its range has been usurped by agriculture. Today it is found in fragmented populations only, and has disappeared from many portions of its original range.
The African buffalo stands about 60 inches (150 centimeters) at the shoulder and weighs up to 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms). Where they are most abundant, the animals gather in herds of 50 to 500 individuals. They travel within home ranges of a few hundred square miles. This buffalo's curved horns meet at the base to form a shield of thick horn called a "boss" across the top of the head.
In 1992, zoologists discovered a living saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), a new genus and species of bovid related to oxen. Several hundred of these 220-pound (100-kilogram) creatures are thought to live in Vietnam and Laos.
These familiar bovids (Bos taurus) include the now-extinct aurochs. This large, forest-dwelling wild ox lived in Asia and Europe into the Middle Ages. The last known aurochs disappeared from Poland in 1627. They had been domesticated for at least 8,000 years.
Their descendants are now the many breeds of domestic cattle found in the world. Some of the more primitive breeds, like Spanish fighting oxen and Scottish Highland cattle, have been selectively bred in recent years in an effort to create an animal similar in appearance to the aurochs.
Commercial cattle are raised for dairy products, meat, leather, and other products. Among the notable breeds are the Texas longhorn, English Park Cattle, and the zebu, the sacred cattle of India.
Also called the seladang (Bos gaurus), this rare inhabitant of Nepal, India, Indochina, and the Malay Peninsula is probably the world's largest ox. It stands as high as 86 inches (220 centimeters) at the shoulder and weighs more than 2,000 pounds (1,000 kilograms). It runs well and is agile enough to leap fences.
Biologists who have studied the gaur in the wild have found that it usually congregates in herds of 8 to 11 animals. These groups are dominated by a single mature bull. Herds of gaurs inhabit grassy clearings and forested hills in a home range of about 50 square miles (130 square kilometers).
Native to Tibet, the yak (Bos grunniens) is a large, broadly horned ox notable for its long and shaggy coat. It is a surprisingly agile and surefooted climber. In the wild it is found on mountain steppes at elevations up to 20,000 feet (6,100 meters).
Males tend to be solitary or gather in small herds. Females and young congregate in herds of hundreds or thousands. The yak is growing increasingly rare in the wild and is considered endangered. It has been domesticated for about 2,000 years. It is now commonly raised for milk and meat throughout the mountains and high plateaus of Central Asia.
The single living species of musk ox (Ovibos moschatus) was once widely distributed across much of the world's northern lands. The Eurasian populations disappeared at least 2,000 years ago. Those in Alaska and the Arctic were nearly annihilated by the early 20th century. Today, about 80,000 musk oxen survive in northern Canada, and another 12,500 are found in Greenland.
The musk ox stands about 60 inches (150 centimeters) at the shoulder, and weighs up to 900 pounds (410 kilograms). It is covered with a dense, shaggy coat reaching nearly to the ground. Its horns meet in a thick boss over the forehead. During the rut, the males secrete a powerful odor of musk, the characteristic that gave the animals their common name.
Musk oxen congregate in herds of up to 100 animals. When threatened by wolves or other predators, the herd arranges itself into a tight, circular or semicircular bunch, with the calves on the inside and the adults facing outward.
Unlike bison, musk oxen seldom migrate long distances. During summer, they tend to prefer the Arctic tundra's damper regions, especially river valleys, wet meadows, and lake shores. In winter, they move to hilltops and plateaus, where winds keep grasses swept clear of snow.