The Bison – Emperor of the Forest

Today’s post is by Klaudia from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are not experts, but we are people with a passionate interest in the museum and its objects. We each bring our own insight into Manchester Museum and its collections.

For more about Zoology and Palaeontology, please visit the Curator blogs; Nature ManchesterPalaeo Manchester.


One of the most remarkable objects on display in the Fossils gallery is the almost complete skeleton of an Ice Age bison, excavated at Windy Knoll by William Boyd Dawkins, the first curator at Manchester Museum. Here is a closer look at this magnificent beast…

Bison skeleton, Manchester Museum
Skeleton of the ice age bison (Bison priscus), Fossils Gallery, Manchester Museum

The Bison – Emperor of the European Forest

While not as ingrained in people’s consciousness as mammoths and cave lions, bison were one of the most widespread ice age animals.

Bison Cave painting
Upper Paleolithic rock art depiction of a bison from Altamira Cave, Spain. Available from:

The history of the modern European bison, not very much different from its ice age ancestor, continues to this day.

Bison are not only the largest living mammals on the continent but also Europe’s heaviest land animals (adult males can weigh over a ton), which is why they are often called ‘the emperors of the European forest’. They are characterised by a disproportionately developed front part of the body, with massive a head and nape of the neck. Bison don’t have natural predators; even wolves and bears are usually intimidated by their size.

Present day Bison
Present-day lowland bison (Bison bonasus). Available from:

Bison are grazing animals, eating grass and occasionally leaves and sprouts, they can consume up to 32 kilograms of food in a day!

Contrary to popular belief, bison don’t eat bison grass, known to some from the bison grass vodka, or Żubrówka, named after the Polish word for the bison – żubr. The famous grass grows in the areas populated by bison, hence the association with the animal.

Bison Vodka
Bison grass vodka. Available from:

Bison are not extinct, although their European population was almost completely wiped out by the 20th century due to extensive hunting and poaching as well as decreasing of the woodland as a result of human activity. Attempts to save bison date back as far as to the 16th Century, when hunting them became strictly prohibited by Polish kings and could be severely punished.

The highest number of bison survived in Polish forests, but the last one living in the wild was killed during the First World War. Luckily, a considerable number were still kept in captivity. In 1923, thanks to the initiative of Polish ornithologist Jan Sztolcman, zoologists from 16 countries united with a mission to restore the bison population in the wild. Out of only 54 bison living in zoos, they chose 12 healthiest and most fit for reproduction, which are ancestors of the majority of present-day bison herds around Europe.

2 Cute Bisons
Available from:
Bison in Town
During particularly cold winters, bison sometimes pay visits to towns near the Białowieża forest (Photo by Ireneusz Smerczyński)

The only surviving bison in Europe belong to the subspecies of lowland bison (Bison bonasus). Their close cousins are American bison (Bison bison), which are slightly smaller, with shorter legs, and live on plains rather than in deep forests.

Bison Subspecies
European and American subspecies of bison. Available from:

The history of both species is strikingly similar – American bison disappeared almost completely due to hunting for their skins and meat. Today, American bison live mainly in national parks, such as Yellowstone.

American Bison Heard
American bison in Yellowstone. Available from:

Today, there are over 4000 European bison. The most numerous herds, with over 1,400 bison, are in Poland. The home of the Polish wild-living bison is Białowieża forest, the only remaining primeval forest in Europe, which is a particularly suitable environment for the animals. Nearly 1,000 bison live in Belarus, and other places with considerable population are Caucasus, Russia, Ukraine, and Romania.

If you are lucky you may spot some bison from Białowieża on this live webcam stream!

Klaudia Januszewska

Here are some links to find out more:  (Polish) (Polish) (Polish)

For more about Zoology and Palaeontology, please visit the Curator blogs; Nature ManchesterPalaeo Manchester.

And have a look at some more of the Visitor Team’s animal stories:

‘Oophaga pumilio’ … the Egg Eater!
Chinese Zodiac: Part 1 – Monkey
Climate Control – The Polar Bear Fact File


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