Learning About Bison Classroom Activities

Are they Bison or Buffalo?


Because bison in America resembled the buffalo of the old world, explorers also called them buffalo.  The word buffalo is believed to have been used by English settlers.  This term was said to have been a modification of the name "les boeufs" which French explorers gave to oxen or cattle.  Spanish explorers referred to bison as cattle, "vacas de tierra" or cows of the country. 

The term evolved, and soon many variations such as "buffler", "boeffle", and "buffilo" were used.  Although the terms buffalo and bison are now used synonymously, the scientific name for the "buffalo" found in America is bison. 

Bison & Buffalo Taxonomy
Kingdom: Animalia Animals
Phylum: Chordata Chordates
Subphylum: Vertebrata Vertebrates
Class: Mammalia Mammals
Order: Artiodactyla Even-toed ungulates
Suborder: Ruminantia Complicated four-chambered stomach
Family Bovidae Cattle, water buffalo, bison, antelopes, goats, sheep, and more

There are three types of bison and two true buffalo in the world.

Common Name Genus Species Subspecies Region
Plains Bison Bison bison bison North America grasslands
Woods Bison Bison bison athabascau North America forest
Wisent Bison Bison bonasus ------- Europe
Cape Buffalo Syncerus caffer 4 subspecies Africa
Water Buffalo Bubalus arnee 6 subspecies Asia

comparison of bison and buffalo

The Texas State Bison Herd are plains bison which are also referred to as Bison bison bison.  These mammals have long beards, and the horns are often covered by their shaggy hair.  There is a sharp distinction in the texture and color of the pelage.

The wood bison or Bison bison athabascae is larger and darker than the plains bison.  It has a longer neck and a more abrupt change in the contour from the shoulders to the back.  The hair is longer and lower on the forehead of the wood bison.  This type of bison was also referred to as the mountain bison and is found in the northern part of America and Canada. 

 The Bison bison athbascae are larger than the Bison bison bison.  This follows Burgman's Rule which states the farther north one goes, the larger the animals tend to be.  Animals in the south tend to be smaller because they do not need the additional surface area to absorb heat. 

There is another type of bison which is known as Bison bison bonasus.  These animals are found in Europe.  Most of these bison live on preserves in Russia or Poland.  These animals appear more like an ox.  They have smaller heads that are carried higher than American bison.  Its body and legs are longer.  The pelage is less shaggy, and the tail is longer.  Overall, the body has less imposing forequarters and larger hindquarters.

The "true" buffalo are often referred to as those in Asia or Africa.  They belong to a different family than the American bison.  The physical differences are more evident.  These buffalo do not have a large hump and have a slicker appearance.

Student Challenge!

Many times, people have names for animals that are different from their "real" or scientific names.  Have students list some of these, along with their various names.  (Example: mountain lion or puma)

Students explore the difference between phenotypic (physical) and genotypic (genes) concepts within the bison family and members of the true buffalo.

Bison Seasons


During the winter the bison are split into two separate groups.  Cows and calves make up one group, bulls make up the other.  Both groups search for exposed grass to feed on.  Bison use their heads, horns, and powerful necks to clear away the snow that covers the food supply.  Bison can eat grass buried under snowdrifts 4 feet deep!  When water is difficult to find, they eat snow.  Their thick coats and heavy layers of fat protect them from the cold temperatures.  During blizzards, bison huddle together for warmth.  Bulls often take shelter in trees, but the cow/calf group often tries to resist the wind in the open where they are more likely to find nourishing grass.


As the temperature starts to warm, the bison move off their winter range.  Now their heavy layers of fat have been depleted, and the search for new grass keeps the bison on the move.  Thick coats are no longer needed, so the bison shed (molt) their heavy hair (pelage).  Tattered patches of hair often cling to the bison.  
The cows are still separate from the bulls.  The pregnant bison tend to separate themselves a small distance from the cow/calf group.  After approximately 275 days of gestation, the cows bear their calves.  The calves are born without humps and weigh about 50 pounds.  Their coats are the color of cinnamon and will darken with age.

Bison_baby closeup.jpg


The bulls and the cows finally join together as a herd during the summer.  The mating season, known as the rut, begins and lasts until early fall.  The calves are really growing.  The hump starts to develop. Horns break the skin and their coloring darkens. Molting occurs as the darker hair pushes the baby hair out.  The adults rub against any available object and wallow on the ground to rid themselves of their molting pelage.  When telegraph lines first crossed the prairies, many were knocked down by bison rubbing and scratching. Bison wallow for other reasons which may include, ridding themselves of insects, scent marking, and cooling off.


At this time, the bison are building fat for the winter.  They graze much more, spending less time on the scratching, napping, and rolling that is popular in the summer.  They are also in the process of growing a thicker pelage for cold weather.  Because they are in prime condition, this was often considered the best time for hunting by Native Americans.  By November, the bulls have left the herd.  The calves are looking more like adult bison with their coloring and shape.  Their hair is also thickening into a long, shaggy appearance.  Calves at this age weigh about 400 pounds.     


  • Bull
  • Cow
  • Calf
  • Graze
  • Horns
  • Molt
  • Pelage
  • Wallow

Texas Bison Timeline


The histories of bison and people shaped each other.


The students will be able to sequence events. 
The students will be able to apply measurement to chronological time. 
The students will cultivate interest in the history of wildlife conservation.


Bison traveled over the land bridge during the Illinoisan Glacial Age from Asia to North America.  Since their arrival, they have had a major impact on American history.  Famous European explorers noted the bison as they explored the land.  Two of these explorers included Hernando Cortez and Alvar Munez Cabeza de Vaca.  Cortez saw a bison in Montezuma's menagerie.  In contrast, Cabeza de Vaca is said to be the first white man to see bison in the wild. 

Bison were essential to the Native American way of life.  They utilized every part of the bison for something.  In addition to relatively large quantities of meat, these animals provided hides to make clothing and shelter.  The bison were also interconnected to Native American religion, folklore, and art.

As time progressed, the bison faced many difficult times.  Disease, settlement pressures, and the adoption of the Trans-Continental Railroad divided the bison into a northern and southern herd.

Hide hunters set out to make their fortunes killing bison for their hides leaving the remainder of the bison to rot, wasting meat and other useful parts.  Once the bison were depleted, a trade in bones for china, fertilizer, and other products developed. 

The bison were practically eliminated but fortunately a few individuals saw the bison were in danger.  Charles & Mary Goodnight captured and raised bison calves on their ranch beginning in 1878.  Later some parks and reservations were set up to provide the bison with a safe area to roam.  Finally, the last of the wild bison in the Texas Panhandle were moved to Caprock Canyons State Park in 1996-1997.


  • Bison Timeline (print and cut each date with events)
  • Paper
  • Pencils
  • Markers or crayons
  • Tape
  • Measuring Tape


  1. After reading the students the information, have them create a timeline. They may work in pairs or as individuals.
  2. Cut the date/event squares into squares.  Allow each pair/person to select a specific event in bison history and have them illustrate the event on a single sheet of paper.  Make sure the year is on the paper.
  3. Review with students that events are placed in order from past to present.  Allow the students to place the events in order.
  4. Place and tape the ordered events on the wall creating a timeline.
  5. Travel as a class through time stopping at each point along the way.  Students act as cultural interpreters and share their events in history and present their illustration of the event to the other students and teacher of the class.


Investigate additional historical wildlife conservation success stories in Texas.

Bison landscape.jpg

The Bison Supercenter


Hunted bison were the supercenters for Native American survival needs.


Students will learn how bison parts were used by Native Americans. 
Students will associate historical bison parts with modern day household items.


Think about the many different items you purchase and use every day.  Where can you find these items all in one place?  For many of us, it’s a supercenter.  That’s just what the bison became for Native Americans!  Native Americans looked to the bison to provide them with everything they needed for survival.  In fact, the bison could not only provide the most basic of needs, but also much more!  It is estimated that Plains Indians had more than 150 uses for the parts of the bison!


  • Storage container to hold supplies
  • Flyswatter
  • Cup and spoon
  • Pieces of wood or fuel starter
  • Canteen or water bottle
  • Small pillow
  • Stick of beef jerky
  • Small item of clothing
  • Trowel or other digging utensil
  • Game piece or small action figure
  • Individual bison part words cut into strips
  • Bison Part Word List:
    • Hide
    • Tail
    • Horn
    • Bison chip (manure)
    • Bison bladder
    • Bison fur
    • Bison meat
    • Bison scapula (shoulder) bone
    • Bison toe bones


  1. Write or type the individual bison part words and cut them out into individual pieces of paper.
  2. Distribute a bison part word to each student.
  3. Ask the students to imagine that they are Native Americans and the bison part word they have corresponds to an item that they need.
  4. Ask the students to come up to the table individually and choose an item that they think is a match to the bison part word. Explain why or why not.


Students get into groups and brainstorm some additional items that bison parts could have provided for people.  Then have individual groups explain their reasoning to the rest of the class.

Students list some items that they recently purchased at the local supercenter.  Are any of these items similar to those provided by the bison?  What parts of the bison would students use to correspond to these items?

What Does a Bison Eat?


Bison grazing patterns influence the diversity of prairie ecosystems. 


Students will be able to identify at least 3 major categories of food eaten by bison.
Students will be able to identify three plants as a grass, forb, or browse.
Students will express intertest in improving bison habitat diversity.



Bison are grazers. After dawn, in groups of three to four, the herd rises and eventually starts grazing. They eat their fill and then rest. Their day cycles with periods of grazing and rest. It has been estimated that bison eat about 1.6 % of their body mass per day of dry vegetation. That equals 24 pounds a day. But what do the bison eat?

Bison eat grass as the greatest percentage of their daily diet. These animals eat approximately 93% grass, 5% forbs, and 2% browse as averaged over the course of one year.

Grass can be defined as the plants that are usually tufted or sod-forming herbaceous plants with narrow, elongated leaves. In the Panhandle area (where the State Bison Herd is located), bison eat grasses such as: bluestem, buffalo grass, and grama grass.

Forbs have broad leaves and are considered herbaceous plants. Many refer to forbs as weeds or wildflowers depending on their outlook. In the Panhandle Area, the bison may eat plants such as sunflower and coshia weeds.

Browse includes plants with a woody stem. Usually, you can peel a thin "bark" off browse plants. In the Panhandle Area, bison eat browse that includes mesquite and elm.


  1. Divide into research teams.
    1. Each team of 4-6 students should take an index card with a large loop of masking tape on it, a notebook and pencils, and either a hula hoop (for a round quadrat) or four sticks of equal length (for a square quadrat).
  2. Randomly choose a spot in the prairie for the first quadrat by throwing the hoop or a stick over your shoulder.
    1. If you are doing an annual survey of your restoration, you may have permanent sampling plots set up.
  3. Count the number of different species of plants in your quadrat.
    1. If the plants are very small, place a small leaf of each species on the tape (must receive permission from the landowner prior to collection; No collection allowed in State Parks).
    2. If the plants are large, sketch the leaf on the index card or in your notebook and note any other identifying traits.
    3. Identification of the plants is not necessary, only differentiation by leaf type or another characteristic.
  4. Repeat the process in a lawn, wooded area, or different type of ecosystem.
  5. Rejoin the class and examine the cards and sketches.
  6. As a group, plot the number of species of vegetation types found in one group’s quadrat on Student Worksheet
    1. A second group should then examine their data to see if they found additional species that the previous group did not mention. Plot the second data point by taking the number of species found by the previous group and adding to it the number of additional species found by the second group (i.e., plot the new cumulative total number of species). Based on the totals for each group, students can graph these data points and create a Species Area Curve. Plot the new cumulative total of species for each group, continuing through all the groups.
    2. Create separate curves for each ecosystem sampled. Determine the average number of species per plot and the total number of species found by the class.
  7. Add each prairie and lawn vegetation type and divide by total cumulative species found. Compare the percentage of vegetation type to the statement, Bison eat approximately 93% grasses, 5% forbs, and 2% browse as averaged over the course of one year, to determine if the habitat is suitable for bison survival needs.


Have the students use field guides to determine the name of each plant.
The teacher could bring in examples of forbs, browse, and grass. Then ask the students to classify each of the plants. There is no collecting permitted in State Parks or without permission of the landowner.
Use rice, beans, and noodles as a manipulative to demonstrate the different percentages of plants consumed.



Eating - One Job, Four Stomachs!



Ruminant stomachs aide bison when they bite off more than they can chew.


Students will be able to describe how bison eat plants. 
Students will be able to identify the four compartments of ruminant stomachs. 
Students will inquire about nutrition absorption.


Bison like to eat prairie grasses, and they have special teeth on their lower jaw that helps them clip off the grass.  They eat grass by wrapping their tongue around it and pinching it off between their tongues and lower incisors.  Using their molars, they grind their food before swallowing their food.  Bison are ruminants.  Ruminants have stomachs made up of four compartments that help them digest food.  

  1. When eaten, food is first stored in the rumen, the first compartment of the stomach. Some food goes directly to the second compartment which is the reticulum. 
  2. Eventually, all the food goes to the second compartment, the reticulum.  Here stomach juices and bacteria begin to break down food and form it into cud.  When the bison are resting, muscles in the reticulum push the cud back up into the bison's mouth.  There the cud is chewed and mixed with more saliva.
  3. Then the cud is swallowed again to be further digested. It passes through the rumen, the reticulum, and into the omasum, which is the third compartment of the bison's stomach.  The cud is further digested there.
  4. The final stop is the abomasum, the last of the compartments.  Here, cud is combined with stomach juices before passing into the intestines.

 Why does it take four stomachs?  The grasses, forbs (wildflowers), and browse (woody plants) are very tough and hard to break down.  The bison's ability to digest different plants makes it a survivor when forage (food) is scarce.