An Ultimate Ungulate Fact SheetReturn to Artiodactyla

Kingdom: Animalia
  Phylum: Chordata
    Class: Mammalia
      Order: Artiodactyla
        Family: Bovidae
          Subfamily: Bovinae
            Genus: Bison

Bison bonasus

      European bison, Wisent


Bison bonasus [Linnaeus, 1758].  
Citation: Syst. Nat., 10th ed., 1:71.
Type locality: Bialowieza Forest, Poland.
The taxonomic record (above) is taken from Wilson and Reeder (1993).  Some authors consider Bison bison and B. bonasus to be conspecific, grouping the two into a single species (Nowak, 1991).  The taxonomic status of the genus Bison is also disputed, with some authorities placing it as a subgenus of Bos (Nowak, 1991).  Invalid synonyms for Bison bonasus include B. arbustotundrarum, B. caucasicus, B. europaeus, B. hungarorum, B. nostras, and B. urus (Wilson and Reeder, 1993).

Click on the pictures above for a larger view of the photographs

General Characteristics

Body Length: 290 cm / 9.6 ft.
Shoulder Height: 180-195 cm / 6-6.5 ft.
Tail Length: 80 cm / 2.6 ft.
Weight: 800-1000 kg / 1760-2200 lb.

The coat is dense and dark brown to golden brown in colour.  The neck is short and thick, topped by a shoulder hump.  The thickness of the neck is intensified by longer hair which forms a short mane on the underside.  The hindquarters are somewhat larger than the American bison, and the head is carried relatively high.  The broad, short skull has a curly mop of hair on the forehead and a short beard on the chin.  The horns, found in both sexes, project outwards and then curve upwards and slightly forwards.

Ontogeny and Reproduction

Gestation Period: 254-272 days.
Young per Birth: 1, rarely 2.
Weaning: At 6-8 months.
Sexual Maturity: Females at 2 years, males by 8 years.
Life span: Up to 27 years.

The breeding season is in August and September.

Ecology and Behavior

The wisent is active throughout the day, though the distribution of activity is affected by food supply.  In the summer, feeding occurs primarily in the morning and evening, and rarely at night.  In the winter, two to five feeding sessions per day have been recorded, mostly in the morning and evening before midnight.  Over a 24 hour period, an average of 30% of the time is spent feeding, 60% resting, and 10% moving and/or playing.  Although movements are generally slow, short gallops are rarely observed.  Despite their size, wisent can jump across 3 m / 10 feet wide streams and 2 m / 6 foot tall fences from a standing position.  The wisent is dependent on water, knocking holes in the ice in winter with their hooves to reach the liquid.  Population densities are about 12 animals per 1,000 hectares in the Bialoweiza Forest in Poland, and 3-4 per 1,000 hectares in the Caucasus.  Vocalizations other than short grunts or snorts are rare.

Family group: Maternal groups of around 20 individuals, males are either solitary or in small groups.
Diet: Grasses, leaves, bark, lichens, and mosses.
Main Predators: Wolf, lynx (for young animals).


Mixed deciduous forests in Bialowiesza (Poland) and Western Caucasus.

Countries: Reintroduced to Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Russian Federation, and Ukraine, and introduced to Kyrgyzstan (IUCN, 2002).  

Conservation Status

The European bison is classified as endangered (Criteria: A2ce, C2a) by the IUCN (2002), but is not listed by CITES.


Historically, the European bison's range encompassed almost all of Europe, including southern England, and Russia.  However, hunting eradicated most populations, and the current range of the wisent is very restricted.  Thankfully, captive breeding kept this species alive, and since 1980, 24 herds have been reintroduced into the wild.

Wisent is from wisunt (German) a bison.  Bison (Latin) a bison.  Also bison (Greek) a species of wild ox, bison.  Bonasus (Latin) a type of buffalo.

Bison d'Europe (Buchholtz, 1990)
Wisent, Europäischer Bison (Buchholtz, 1990)
Bisonte Europeo (IUCN, 2002)

Literature Cited

Buchholtz, C. 1990. Cattle. In Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals. Edited by S. P. Parker. New York: McGraw-Hill. Volume 5, pp. 360-417.

IUCN ( International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources). 2002. 2002 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Available online at

Nowak, R. M. [editor]. 1991.  Walker's Mammals of the World (Fifth Edition).  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wilson, D. E., and D. M. Reeder [editors]. 1993. Mammal Species of the World (Second Edition). Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.  Available online at

Additional Resources

Boitani, L., and S. Bartoli.  1982.  Simon & Schuster's Guide to Mammals.  New York: Fireside/Simon & Schuster, Inc.  Entry 388.

Burzyn'ska, B., W. Olech, and J. Topczewski.  1999.  Phylogeny and genetic variation of the European bison (Bison bonasus) based on mitochondrial DNA D-loop sequences. Acta Theriologica 44(3): 253-262.

Cabon'-Raczyn'ska, K., M. Krasin'ska, Z. A. Krasin'ski, and J. M. Wojcik.  1987.  Rhythm of daily activity and behavior of European bison in the Bialowieza Forest in the period without snow cover. Acta Theriologica 32(21): 335-372.

Gebczyn'ska, Z., M. Gebczyn'ski, and E. Martynowicz.  1991.  Food eaten by the free-living bison in Bialowieza Forest. Acta Theriologica 36(3-4): 307-313.

Gill, J.  1992.  Seasonal changes in activity of some enzymes in the European bison (Bison bonasus). Acta Theriologica 37(3): 291-300.

Gill, J.  1992.  Seasonal changes in the white blood cell count and blood cell sedimentation rate in the European bison (Bison bonasus). Acta Theriologica 37(3): 279-290.

Gill, J.  1993.  Evidence for the need to protect European bison (Bison bonasus) living in modern environments. Proceedings of the International Union of Game Biologists Congress 21(2): 29-34.

Gill, J.  1998.  Do the abiotic environmental factors influence the reproduction rate in the free-ranging European bison in Bialowieza Primeval Forest? Acta Theriologica 43(4): 417-432.

Hartl, G. B., and Z. Pucek.  1994.  Genetic depletion in the European bison (Bison bonasus) and the significance of electrophoretic heterozygosity for conservation. Conservation Biology 8(1): 167-174.

Heptner, V. G., A. A. Nasimovich, and A. G. Bannikov.  1989.  Mammals of the Soviet Union (Volume 1).  Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Jedrzejewska, B., W. Jedrzejewski, A. Bunevich, L. Milkowski, and Z. Krasin'ski.  1997.  Factors shaping population densities and increase rates of ungulates in Bialowieza Primeval Forest (Poland and Belarus) in the 19th and 20th centuries. Acta Theriologica 42(4): 399-451.

Kobryn'czuk, F.  1985.  The influence of inbreeding on the shape and size of the skeleton of the European bison. Acta Theriologica 30(25): 379-422.

Kobryn'czuk, F., and M. Krasin'ska.  1987.  Taxonomic studies on skulls of European bison and domestic cattle hybrids. Acta Theriologica 32(12): 203-218.

Kobryn'czuk, F., and M. Krasin'ska.  1991.  Shape of the mandible in European bison and domestic cattle hybrids. Acta Theriologica 36(1-2): 171-177.

Krasin'ska, M., K. Cabon-Raczyn'ska, and Z. Krasin'ski.  1987.  Strategy of habitat utilization by European bison in the Bialowieza Forest. Acta Theriologica 32(11): 147-202.

Krasin'ska, M., and Z. Krasin'ski.  1995.  Composition, group size, and spatial distribution of European bison bulls in Bialowieza Forest. Acta Theriologica 40(1): 1-21.

Krasin'ska, M., Z. A. Krasin'ski, and A. N. Bunevich.  2000.  Factors affecting the variability in home range size and distribution in European bison in the Polish and Belarussian parts of the Bialowieza Forest. Acta Theriologica 45(3): 321-334.

Krasin'ski, Z. A.  1978.  Dynamics and structure of the European bison population in the Bialowieza Primeval Forest. Acta Theriologica 23(1): 3-48.

Krasin'ski, Z., and M. Krasin'ska.  1992.  Free ranging European bison in Borecka Forest. Acta Theriologica 37(3): 301-317.

Nowak, R. M. [editor]. 1991.  Walker's Mammals of the World (Fifth Edition).  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Okarma, H., B. Jedrzejewska, W. Jedrzejewski, Z. Krasin'ski, and L. Milkowski.  1995.  The roles of predation, snow cover, acorn crop, and man-related factors on ungulate mortality in Bialowieza Primeval Forest, Poland. Acta Theriologica 40(2): 197-217.

Olech, W.  1987.  Analysis of inbreeding in European bison. Acta Theriologica 32(22): 373-387.

Pucek, Z.  1983.  The European bison: current state and problems of management. Conservation, Science, and Society 2: 276-282.

Pucek, Z.  1984.  What to do with the European bison, now saved from extinction? Acta Zoological Fennica 172: 187-190.

Pucek, Z., I. Udina, U. S. Seal, and P. Miller.  1996.  Population and habitat viability assessment for the European bison (Bison bonasus). Wolinski National Park Miedzyzdroje, Poland. IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group i-vi: 1-163.

Pytel, S., M. Wegrzyn, and F. Kobryn'czuk.  1988.  Abnormal development of the caudal vena cava in European bison. Acta Theriologica 33(25): 361-365.

Sawicki, B.  1991.  Ultimobranchial follicles and cysts in the European bison thyroid. Acta Theriologica 36(3-4): 349-356.

Sawicki, B., S. Siuda, and I. Kasacka.  1992.  Microscopic structure of the thyriod gland in the European bison. Acta Theriologica 37(1-2): 171-179.

Witkowska, A., and T. Kotik.  1987.  Concentrations of creatine, creatinine and phosphorus in skeletal muscles of the European bison. Acta Theriologica 32(13): 219-228.

Wolk, E., and E. Józefczak.  1988.  Serum biochemistry of free-ranging European bison. Acta Theriologica 33(4): 47-56.

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