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Wisent, European Bison - Bison bonasus

Family:
Cattle (Artiodactyla Bovidae Bovinae)
Status:
Vulnerable

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Taxonomic status

Scientific name

Bison bonasus

Common name

Wisent, European Bison

Comments on the subspecies

Bison bison bonasus, Bison bison caucasicus, Bison bison bonasus, Bison bison hungarorum.

Two genetic lines are distinguished in recent populations:

  • the Lowland line (Bison bonasus bonasus) and
  • the Lowland-Caucasian line (Bison bonasus bonasus and Bison bonasus caucasicus).

There are no surviving pure-bred populations of Bison bonasus caucasicus left.

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Species information

Physical characteristics

Body Length 290 cm
Shoulder Height 180-195 cm
Tail Length 80 cm
Weight 400-1000 kg


Largest herbivore in Europe

European bison (Bison bonasus) is the largest herbivore in Europe. At birth, a calf's trunk is short and tall. It is only in the 8-10 months of life that those proportions undergo change, such that the thorax become as long as it is high. Throughout development, this part of the body is shorter in females than in males. At birth, bull-calves are somewhat larger than heifers. Sexual dimorphism becomes apparent from age 3 onwards, and is retained to the end of life.

Adult bulls
aged 6 and over have maximum body dimensions of: 188 cm in height at the hump, 300 cm in length of the trunk, and a 280 cm circumference of the thoracic cavity. Among cows, these respective dimensions are of 167 cm, 270 cm and 246 cm.

At birth calves are quite small, weighing in at between 15 and 35 kg. In the free-ranging population of the Bialowieza Forest, body masses among adults (aged 6 and over) are of 634 kg on average in the cases of males (range 436 to 840), and of 424 among females (range 340 to 540).


Group of Wisent in the Bialowieza forest, Poland

Group of Wisent in the Bialowieza forest, Poland

A powerful body

The powerful body is covered in a reddish-brown coat that blends remarkably well with the animal's surroundings. The head, neck and front of the body are covered in long hair, this forming the so-called 'beard' located along the lower part of the throat and upper part of the chest. The rear part of the body is covered with short hair only, although the end of the tail again supports long hairs extending down to the level of the hock.

Best developed sense of smell

A bison's best developed sense is its sense of smell. Rutting males are adept at tracking down herds, sniffing the scent of cows that was left behind on the forest floor. The same behaviour applies where an individual becomes separated from its group for a period of time.

Fast runners

Wisents are fast runners, although they are more in the nature of sprinters than long-distance operators. They usually come to a panting stop having covered just a couple of hundred metres.

(Source: European bison, the nature monograph)

Habitat, behaviour, food and reproduction

Habitat and behaviour

Optimal habitats for the Wisent are deciduous and mixed forests, but the range should include about 20% of grassland habitats (meadows). In Białowieża Forest (Poland) they primarily forage in moist deciduous forests, and then in mixed coniferous forests. Forest complexes with a mosaic-like forest type arrangement (such as Białowieża and Borecka Forests, Poland) are most favourable. In fresh deciduous forest, Wisent find food throughout the vegetative season.

Bison in the Bialowieza Forest are artificially fed during wintertime. This tradition remained and has been carried on due to several reasons. Bison prefer natural ford, which is in short supply in the Forest during winter. Food demand for pregnant and feeding females is high, therefore hay is necessary for them. Dramatic decrease in the free roaming population would allow for significant reduction of the artificial feeding to a minimum level, though it would result in the decrease in genetic diversity. The lack of winter feeding would decrease the bison impact on local forest and inevitability of conflicts with the local population living in the forest villages or located at the edges of the forest complex.

A group of Wisent in front of a hay stack

A group of Wisent in front of a hay stack



In the Caucasus region, Wisent prefer foothill forests; in summer, they feed on alpine meadows. However, considerable plasticity of Wisent with regard to food means they also forage in habitats where coniferous forests predominate.

All Wisent populations inhabit ranges that include open areas, such as, mown meadows, deforested feeding glades covered with grass, clear cuts and young plantations up to 10 years old. The attraction of open areas results from the fact that exploited meadows and glades provide ungulates with much more food than the same area of the forest herb layer and food is more easily available there.

The bison is active throughout the day, though the distribution of activity is affected by food supply. They feed on grasses, leaves, bark, lichens and mosses. 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 wide streams and 2 m tall fences from a standing position. The bison 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.

Reproduction and Groupstructure

The wisent is a gregarious (living in herds) animal, which lives in both mixed and solely-male groups. Mixed groups consist of cows, young aged 2-3 years, calves and young adult bulls. The average herd size is dependent on environmental factors, though on average, they number 8-13 animals per herd. Herds consisting solely of bulls are smaller than mixed ones, containing two individuals on average. Wisent herds are not family units. Different herds frequently interact, combine and quickly split after exchanging individuals.
Territory held by bulls is correlated by age, with young bulls aged between 5-6 tending to form larger home ranges than older males. The wisent does not defend territory, and herd ranges tend to greatly overlap. Core areas of territory are usually sited near meadows and water sources.

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

The rutting season occurs from August through to October. Bulls aged 4-6 years, though sexually mature, are prevented from mating by older bulls. Cows usually have a gestation period of 264 days, and typically give birth to one calf at a time.

wisent calf

wisent calf



Male bison can reach sexual maturity at ages of 15-20 months, although research suggest that such cases are rare. Today, the young 4-5 year old males in the wild population are sexually mature, but do not usually participate in reproduction for behavioural reasons, older bulls seeing to it that they are kept well away from cows on rut. Than again old bulls over 12 years are driven away from cows on rut by younger males.

Female bison of the Bialowieza Forest mated first in their 3rd and 4th years of life. Cows remain fertile into old age. In captive conditions as well as in wild populations cows are known of giving birth and successful rearing their calves at age of 20 years. On average, therefore, a cow produces 9 calves in a lifetime. Wisent have an average gestation period of 264 days. Cows calve both day and night, while standing or laying and parturition can last between one and 2 hours. Licking of the calve follows immediately from delivery, and the placenta is eaten within 4-5 hours/ The calve begins to stand 20-45 minutes after birth and will start suckling within the first hour of life.
In free-ranging population a cow about to give birth leaves the herd to deliver the calf in a safe place. After several days the mother and calf rejoin the herd. Calves are born in spring, which is the period most favourable to their subsequent development.

Predation

Bison have few predators (besides humans), with only scattered reports from the 1800's of wolf and bear predation.

Population size and trends

In historical times, the Wisent was widespread and presumably abundant in its native range. However, by the end of the 19th century it was close to extinction, with only two wild populations remaining. Shortly after World War I the species was extinct in the wild, and the captive population consisted of just 54 (29 males; 25 females) Wisent with proved pedigrees, originating from 12 founder animals. The captive population subsequently increased slowly until World War II, when the species again suffered a steep decline, with the population dropping from 160 animals in 1943 to 93 in 1946.

Wisent numbers

Return of the bison

As a result of captive breeding, reintroductions and intensive conservation management, the total population of free-ranging bison now stands at c. 2701.

A further c. 1530 individuals live in captivity. Some captive animals are not recorded in the Wisent Pedigree Book, so this is likely to be an underestimate.

Population structure is such that approximately 60% of individuals are sexually mature. The effective population size is smaller than the total population size, because Wisent are a polygynous species, so not all males have the opportunity to breed.

The free-living population increased more or less steadily from the mid-1960's to a peak of c. 2000 in the early 1990's. Following a period of decline in the mid to late 1990's, the population is once again expanding, although the potential for ongoing growth is limited by a number of factors.

AreaNumbersDevelopment
World4231Increasing
World - free ranging2701Increasing
Belarus - total958?
Belarus, Bialowieza Primeval Forest 360Stable
Caucasus500slowly increasing
Lithuania 61?
Poland - total991 Increasing
Poland, Bialowieza Primeval forest450Stable
Russia 461 Increasing
Slovakia 9Increasing
Ukraine242Decreasing

Captive populations

MalesFemalesUnknownsBirths (last 12 months)
World - captive1530
Poland179
Belarus21
Russia113
Germany503
Ukraine13
France109
Lithuania30
Sweden87
Romania81
Spain45
Netherlands40
Netherlands, Artis Zoo2
Czech Rep.37
Great Britain37
Latvia36
Slovakia22
Other 16 countries177
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Distribution: maps, historical and current

Countries

Landscapes

Interactive map

Bison bonasus – European Bison: historical distribution
Source: after Benecke 2005; Geptner et al. 1967


View European bison - historical distribution in a larger map

Bison bonasus – European bison: current distribution
Source: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species; after Bison Pedigree Book 2009


View European Bison - current distribution in a larger map

Further map information

Current distribution of Wisent
Source: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species
IUCN Red List European bison

 

Historical distribution

Historically the bison was distributed throughout western, central, and south-eastern Europe and the Caucasus. By the end of the 19th century, there were only two populations of Wisent left in the wild: in Białowieża Forest Bison bonasus bonasus and in the western Caucasus mountains Bison bonasus caucasicus. Bison bonasus bonasus was finally driven extinct in the wild in 1919, and Bison bonasus caucasicus had been extirpated by 1927. Subsequently, the species survived only in a few European zoological gardens.

North Sea

Bison bonasus has been recognized in fossil material, dredged from the North Sea. In the article "Bison bonasus from the North Sea", the Netherlands it is postulated that this species appeared at the end of the Weichselian - beginning of the Holocene. Sexual dimorphism in Bison bonasus is clearly demonstrated in the metacarpal bone (Marc Drees and Klaas Post in Cranium).

Holocene area distribution

LHNet expert Taras Sipko developed and published a map with his scientific vision on the distrubution of the Wisent in the Holocene period. European bison in Russia – past, present and future (European Bison Conservation Newsletter).

Wisent in Holocene area distribution

Wisent in Holocene area distribution
European Bison Conservation Newsletter Vol 2 (2009) pp: 148–159

The Northern border of this area corresponds with 60 degrees N. The area includes the southern Urals Mountains and the south of Western Siberia. In the east the European bison lived up to the Altay Mountains and Lake Baikal. This area corresponds with the former distribution of Red deer, that has similar ecological needs.

Current distribution

As a result of reintroductions and introductions, it now occurs in free-ranging and semi-free herds in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Russian Federation, Ukraine, and Slovakia. It occurred from sea level to 2,100 m in the Caucasus, and in the Carpathians it is presently found at alitutudes of up to 800 m.

The introduced Kyrgyzstan subpopulation has recently gone extinct.

Captive populations are well distributed in 30 different countries worldwide (see Pucek et al. 2004 for details).

Wisent in Poland

For information about the bison in Poland, please visit: bison land and the bison network.

Wisent in Russia

Background and strategic information about the wisent in Russia can be found in the Strategy for conservation of the European bison in the Russian Federation, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow 2002. Strategy for the bison in Russia

"The Strategy for Conservation of the European Bison in the Russian Federation aimed at the restoration of free ranging populations in order to guarantee the survival of the species is the result of long–term experience on the part of both Russian and foreign specialists.

It provides a unique opportunity to conserve a species extinct in the wild. One would like to believe that the European bison will re–occupy its ecological niche in the wild due to the joint efforts of scientists, conservationists and the broad public."

Wisent in the Caucasus

According to population numbers provided by Dr. Taras Sipko, bison in a part of the Caucasus region, Russia (70 years Wisent in the Caucasian mountains), suffered from large fluctuations from 1860 up till now. After total disappearance from 1925-1950, reintroduction attempts were succesfull and the population seemed to recover quite well. Than in 1990 the numbers dropped again untill new protection and restoration actions were taken. Nowadays there are about 500+ free-ranging bison in the Caucasus. 

Development of Wisent in the Caucasus
Numbers between 1860 and 2011

 

 

Wisent Vologda region

Succesful bison reintroduction in the UST-Kubenskoye at the Shereshevo, Vologda Oblast.

Wisent in Ukraine

After relatively secure Soviet times, at the end of 1990th the number of wisent's populations began to decline rapidly. Afterwards populations fully disappeared in Ivano-Frankivsk (Nadvirnyanska population), Rivne (on territory of Klevanske hunting husbandry), and Khmel'nytskiy regions (group of individuals of Volyn subpopulation which migrated from Tsumanska forest).

However, thorough investigation of this adverse event was not conducted. Therefore, further development of this trend led to a sharp reduction of quantity of two major Uladivska and Bukovinska populations, and decline of Tsumanska population of Volyn region to the limits of its survival. Also we should recognize the full loss of Daniv population in Chernihiv region the real tragedy of recent years, see the poster right.

On the 1st of January, 2008, an amount of Ukrainian bisons according to official data was 258 heads, whereas results of independent investigations showed figures of not more than 190-230 heads.

Graphic: dynamics of Wisent populations in regions of Ukraine

After a strong increase of the population from1970 on, the graphic is showing a strong decline since 1995

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Threats

Habitat degradation and fragmentation

Habitat degradation and fragmentation due to agricultural activity, forest logging, and unlimited hunting and poaching were the primary reasons for the decrease and extinction of Wisent populations. Pucek has summarized the history of their extinction. Among the primary reasons for the rapid decrease of the Wisent population in Białowieża Primeval Forest at the beginning of 19th century was the over-population of deer species, and the drastic reduction of natural food resources for herbivores which followed. During the period of World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917, conflict and heavy poaching exacted a severe toll on remaining populations.

Conflict and political instability

Conflict and political instability continues to be a threat to the species in the Caucasus, where reintroduced free-living herds have suffered very severe losses (leading to extinctions) in recent years. Other current threats include lack of appropriate habitat, fragmentation of populations (and concomitant loss of genetic diversity), inbreeding depression, disease, hybridisation, and poaching.

There is little space for a large herbivore such as the Wisent in Europe's contemporary ecosystems, especially in the west. The most significant limit for the enlargement of European bison populations is human population density; forestry and agricultural activity is not a limiting factor.

Genetic heterogeneity

Fragmentation and isolation of free-ranging (and captive) herds result in little or no exchange of genetic material. Small isolated populations quickly lose their genetic heterogeneity and are more vulnerable to extinction. As yet, the opportunity to reconstruct a more compact geographic range to facilitate migration of bison between herds does not exist. As a consequence of passing a dramatic bottleneck (the current population descends from just 12 founder animals), the gene pool is limited and animals are highly inbred. The average inbreeding coefficient is very high compared to other large mammals, and is equal to 44% in the Lowland line and 26% in the Lowland-Caucasian line for individuals with a full pedigree. The negative effects of inbreeding, manifested in the decline in reproduction rate, are more strongly pronounced in the Lowland-Caucasian line than in the Lowland line. Inbreeding exerts a harmful effect on skeleton growth, particularly in females, and possibly lowers the resistance of bison to disease and pathologies.

Diseases

Diseases appearing in Wisent populations can bring serious threats to the whole species. It is not certain whether the species has always shown a weak resistance to disease or if immunity has declined, due to limited genetic heterogeneity. The most important disease affects the male reproductive organs and is manifested in the inflammation of the penis and prepuce, leading to diphtheroid-necrotic lesions, diagnosed as balanoposthitis. This disease was discovered at the beginning of the 1980s in Białowieża Forest; although similar symptoms had been reported earlier in Russia and Ukraine. Despite many years of study, its pathogenesis has not yet been elucidated. Other diseases that are potentially major threats to herds include foot-and-mouth disease Aphte epizooticae (to which the species is known to be sensitive), and tuberculosis .

Hybrid herds

A particular problem concerning the management of extant populations of Wisent is the existence of hybrid herds, especially European × American bison hybrids living in the Caucasus. Two free-living hybrid herds have been established in the Caucasus Mountains, in close proximity to reintroduced free-living herds of the pure blood Lowland-Caucasian line. There are fears that all these animals will crossbreed, creating a mixture of various genotypes. According to Russian authors, the distances between herds are not so great, but the configuration of mountain ridges and valleys make it impossible for contact between them. There are also two small semi-free herds of European and American bison hybrids in Toksove Forest Park (St Petersburg) and the Mordovia Wildlife Reserve. Finally, poaching as a result of administrative disorders and a failure to enforce nature conservancy law threatens free-living herds of Wisent in many countries.

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Conservation information

IUCN Red List

Vulnerable: D1 ver 3.1

EU habitat directive

Annex II: animal and plant species community interest whose conservation requires the designation of special areas of conservation and IV: animal and plant species of community interest in need of strict protection

CITES

-

EU Wildlife trade regulation EC Reg. 338/97

-

Bern convention

III (protected fauna species)

Bonn convention

-

Conservation status

Bison Action Plan frontpage

    • Downloadthe chapters of this survey in pdf (zip-files).
    • Download the conclusions: "Conservation Strategy and Recommended Action Plan"
    • Download the "Research needs"
  • Most countries in which the species occurs have national management plans.
  • The European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) for zoos was established by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) in 1996, and now a third of the captive population is participating in this programme.
  • The European Bison Pedigree Book has been developed, which registers and publishes lists of Wisent, enabling the genetic purity of the species to be maintained. 

Conservation measures recommended in the 2004 Action Plan include the following:

  1. Continue captive breeding, following a coordinated programme that focuses on maintaining genetic variability. Hybridisation between existing breeding lines (Lowland and Lowland-Caucasian) should be avoided, as should hybridization between European bison and American bison Bison bison.
  2. Establish a Gene Resource Bank to serve as a safeguard against loss of important genetic diversity.
  3. Continue reintroductions into forests and other ecosystems. It will be necessary to link isolated subpopulations (e.g., by creating habitat corridors) and restore metapopulation function to enable the population to be self-sustaining in the long term.
  4. Regulate bison populations by culling, when necessary, to prevent populations exceeding the carrying capacity of remaining habitat.
  5. Manage habitat appropriately, for example by creating watering places, and cultivated meadows or feeding glades for use by other ungulates.
  6. Implement and enforce stricter regulations to control poaching.
  7. Continue producing the European Bison Pedigree Book, and expand its scope.
  8. Implement the International Bison Breeding Centre, to coordinate reintroductions, monitoring of captive and free-ranging herds, and genetic management of particular herds.

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Project information

Title

Re-introducing Wood Bison on the territory of Yakutia, Eastern Siberia

Year, Organisation

Description

A close cooperation between Canada, Alaska and Russia lead to the re-introduction of the Wood Bison. Dr. Sipko, a specialist on Wood bison and working for the Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences is strongly involved in this project. These animals have been brought back to the region where their ancestors used to live.

For more information see the link above.

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Library

Articles

Network meetings

Newsletters

Posters and illustrations

Presentations

Reports

Videos

Workshops

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Recommendations, remarks and advice

Species Management

Safeguard genetic variability

Genetic variability needs to be safeguarded; this is of interest to the breeding programs in particular. The captive population serves as a reserve gene pool and as a source of animals for further reintroduction, so further breeding programs are required.

Continue process of reintroduction

Many of the free-ranging populations are very small and thus are vulnerable for poaching and diseases. The process of reintroduction should be continued, so additional reintroduction sites need to be identified and projects need to be planned.

Maintain separation of the two subspecies

With regard to the breeding and the reintroduction of the species, the separation of the two subspecies should be maintained for as long as possible. Isolated free-ranging populations need to be linked to ensure exchange of genetic material.

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Project proposals

  • Supporting European bison conservation
    The overall goal of this project is to enhance natural processes and wilderness in Central and Eastern Europe and the essential role of large herbivores in this process.

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Experts and scientific referees

IUCN SSC

For more detailed information view the 'Wisent, European Bison - Bison bonasus' page on to the IUCN Red List of threatened species.

Bashta, Andriy-Taras

European bison
Ukrainian Academy of Sciences

Bukowczyk, Iza

Bison genetics
European Bison Friends Society
ebac.sggw.pl/ebac.html

Gusarov, Igor

bison in vast areas, veterinary issues, nutrition
"Biodiversity" Charity Foundation

Kjellander, Petter

Large ungulate ecology, population dynamics, behavioural ecology
Grimsö Wildlife Research Station, Dep. of Ecology, SLU
www.slu.se

Krabbe, Erling

Senior Biologist, M.Sc., Head of Section; ecological networks, large herbivores in Denmark. Denmark
Ministry of Environment, Nature Agency, Division of Nature Planning and Biodiversity
www.naturstyrelsen.dk/

Krasińska, Małgorzata

Leader of the European bison ecology team
Mammal Research Institute PAS in Białowieża
www.zbs.bialowieza.pl/artykul/387.html

Krever, Vladimir

Species officer
WWF Russia

Kuemmerle, Tobias

Effects of land use and climate change on wildlife; resilience and sustainability of landscapes; large herbivores: European bison, reindeer, moose, saiga antelope and wild boar.
Geography Department, Humboldt-University Berlin
www.hu-berlin.de

Kunstmann , Jan

Forests of the World
www.verdensskove.org

Mallon, David

Michel, Stefan

Mountain ungulates
NABU, Germany, Mountain Ungulates Project in Tajikistan
www.wildlife-tajikistan.org/

Mizin, Ivan

Wisent, reindeer
Caucasian State Nature Bioshere Reserve
www.kgpbz.ru

Olech-Piasecka, Wanda

European bison
Department of Animal Genetics, Warsaw University of Life Sciences
ebac.sggw.pl/ebac.html

Perzanowski, Kajetan

Carpathian Wildlife Research Station Museum and Institute of Zoology Polish Academy of Sciences Poland

Sipko, Taras

Russian mammals
Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences
www.sevin.ru/menues1/index_eng.html

Thulin, Carl-Gustaf

Genetics - Wildlife Management - Restoration Biology - Conservation Biology
Center for Fish and Wildlife Research, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences
www.cfw.nu

Vlasakker, Joep van de

Large mammals in Eurasia
Flaxfield Nature Consultancy

Zimmermann, Waltraut

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Sources

Pucek, Zdzislaw; Irina P. Belousova, Malgorzata Krasinska, Zbigniew A. Krasinski and Wanda Olech

2004, Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan European Bison Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan for the European Bison, IUCN/SSC Bison Specialist Group IUCN - The World Conservation Union 2004 data.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/2004-042/1contants.pdf

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