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The wisent ( ) (Bison bonasus), also known as the European bison, is a species of Eurasian bison. It is the heaviest surviving land animal in Europe; a typical wisent is about long and tall, and weighs . It is typically lighter than the related American Bison (Bison bison), and has shorter hair on the neck, head and forequarters, but longer tail and horns. Wisent are now forest-dwelling. They have few predators (besides humans), with only scattered reports from the 1800s of wolf and bear predation. Wisent were first scientifically described by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758. Some later descriptions treat the wisent as conspecific with the American bison. It is not to be confused with the aurochs, the extinct ancestor of domestic cattle.

In 1996 the IUCN classified the wisent as an endangered species. It has since been downgraded to a vulnerable species. In the past it was commonly killed to produce hides and drinking horns, especially during the Middle Ages.


The modern English word itself derives from Old English ƿesend, from Germanic *wisunda (cf. Old Icelandic visundr, Old High German wisunt, cf. modern German Wisent).

The Latin "bisōn" (whence, in turn, modern English for North American bison comes from) is most probably just a borrowing from Germanic.

Differences from American Bison

Although superficially similar, there are a number of physical and behavioural differences between the wisent and the American bison. The Wisent has 14 pairs of ribs, while the American Bison has 15. Adult wisents are taller than American bison, and have longer legs. Wisents tend to browse more, and graze less than their American cousins, due to their necks being set differently. Compared to the American bison, the nose of the wisent is set further forward than the forehead when the neck is in a neutral position. The body of the wisent is less hairy, though its tail is hairier than that of the American species. The horns of the wisent point forward through the plane of their faces, making them more adept at fighting through the interlocking of horns in the same manner as domestic cattle, unlike the American bison, which favours charging. European bison are less tameable than their American cousins, and breed with domestic cattle less readily.


Social structure and territorial behaviours

The wisent is a gregarious 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.


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.

On average, male calves weigh at birth, and females . Body size in males increases proportionately to the age of 6 years. While females have a higher increase in body mass in their first year, their growth rate is comparatively slower than that of males by the age of 3-5. Bulls reach sexual maturity at the age of two, while cows do so in their third year.


Historically, the wisent's range encompassed all of western, central and southeastern Europe, extending to the Volga River and the Caucasus. It may have once lived in the Asiatic part of what is now the Russian Federation. Its range decreased as human populations expanded, the process proceeding from the west, south and the north. The first population to be extirpated was that of Gallia in the 8th century. The wisent became extinct in northern Sweden in the 11th century, and southern England in the 12th. The species survived in Ardennesmarker and Vogue until the 15th century.
Wisent skeleton
Wisent survived longer in Eastern Europe, although they slowly disappeared there as well. The last wisent in Transylvania died in 1790. In northeastern regions, wisent were legally the property of the Polish kings, Lithuanian grand dukes and Russian czars. King Sigismund I of Poland instituted the death penalty for poaching a wisent (known as żubr in Polish) in the mid-16th century. Despite these measures, and others, the wisent population continued to decline over the following four centuries. Many bison became victims of World War I, with German troops occupying Bialowiezamarker killing 600 of the animals for meat, hides, and horns. A German scientist brought to the attention of army officers that the animals were facing imminent extinction, but at the very end of the war, retreating German soldiers shot all but 9 bison. The last wild wisent in Poland was killed in 1919, and the last wild wisent in the world was killed by poachers in 1927 in the western Caucasusmarker. By that year fewer than 50 remained, all in zoos.

To help manage this captive population, Dr. Heinz Heck commenced the first studbook for a non-domestic species; first as a card index from 1923 with a full publication in 1932.


Wisent were reintroduced successfully into the wild, beginning in 1951. Białowieża Forestmarker in Polandmarker and Belarusmarker is home to 800 wild wisent. They are also found in forest preserves in the Western Caucasusmarker and Prioksko-Terrasny Nature Reservemarker in Russiamarker.

Free-ranging herds are found in Polandmarker, Lithuaniamarker, Belarusmarker, Ukrainemarker, Romaniamarker, Russiamarker, Slovakiamarker, Latviamarker, Kyrgyzstanmarker and, since 2005, in Moldovamarker. There are plans to re-introduce two herds in northern Germany and in Oostvaardersplassenmarker Nature Reserve in Flevoland (Netherlandsmarker). Zoos in 30 countries also have quite a few animals. There were 3,000 individuals (as of 2000), all descended from only 12 individuals. Because of their limited genetic pool, they are considered highly vulnerable to diseases like foot and mouth disease.

More details

Wisent have lived as long as 30 years in captivity, although in the wild their lifespan is shorter. Productive breeding years are between four and 20 years old in females, and only between six and 12 years old in males. Wisent occupy home ranges of as much as and some herds are found to prefer meadows and open areas in forests.

Wisent can cross-breed with American bison. The products of a Germanmarker interbreeding programme were destroyed after World War II. This programme was related to the impulse which created the Heck cattle. The cross-bred individuals created at other zoos were eliminated from breed books by the 1950s. A Russian back-breeding program resulted in a wild herd of hybrid animals, which presently lives in the Caucasian Biosphere Reservemarker (550 individuals in 1999).

There are also wisent-cattle hybrids. Cattle and wisent can hybridise fairly readily, but the calves cannot be born naturally (birth is not triggered correctly by the first-cross hybrid calf, and they must therefore be delivered by Caesarian section). In 1847, a herd of wisent-cattle hybrids named żubroń was created by Leopold Walicki. The animals were intended to become durable and cheap alternatives to cattle. The experiment was continued by researchers from the Polish Academy of Sciences until the late 1980s. Although the program resulted in a quite successful animal that was both hardy and could be bred in marginal grazing lands, it was eventually discontinued. Currently the only surviving żubroń herd consists of just a few animals in Białowieża Forestmarker, Polandmarker.

Three sub-species have been identified:

  • Lowland Wisent - Bison bonasus bonasus (Linnaeus, 1758) – from Białowieża Forest
  • Carpathian Wisent (Bison bonasus hungarorum) - extinct
  • Caucasian Wisent (Bison bonasus caucasicus) - extinct, although one individual from Western Caucasusmarker, a bull named "Kaukasus" was one of the 12 founders of the modern herds

The modern herds are managed as two separate lines - one consisting of only Bison bonasus bonasus (all descended from only seven animals) and one consisting of all 12 ancestors including the one Bison bonasus caucasicus bull. Only a limited amount of inbreeding depression from the population bottleneck has been found, having a small effect on skeletal growth in cows and a small rise in calf mortality. Genetic variability continues to shrink. From five initial bulls, all current wisent bulls have one of only two remaining Y chromosomes.

See also


  1. The Penny Cyclopædia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge by Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (Great Britain), published by C. Knight, 1835
  2. Trophy Bowhunting: Plan the Hunt of a Lifetime and Bag One for the Record Books, by Rick Sapp, Edition: illustrated, published by Stackpole Books, 2006, ISBN 0811733157, 9780811733151
  3. American Bison: A Natural History, By Dale F. Lott, Harry W. Greene, ebrary, Inc, Contributor Harry W. Greene, Edition: illustrated, Published by University of California Press, 2003 ISBN 0520240626, 9780520240629
  4. Zoologist: A Monthly Journal of Natural History, By Edward Newman, James Edmund Harting, Published by J. Van Voorst, 1859
  5. European Bison (Bison Bonasus): Current State of the Species and Strategy for Its Conservation By Zdzsław Pucek, Published by Council of Europe, 2004, ISBN 9287155496, 9789287155498
  6. Lake Pape - Bison from the WWF
  7. Bison in the Republic of Moldova
  8. (in Portuguese)

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