“So, Pat,” I said, “got any burning natural history questions you’d like answered?” She stared at me. “What?” “I need a topic for an up-coming article and I’m fresh out of ideas.” She pondered for a while and then asked “what are those animals at the Buffalo Farm?”
“Ah!” I said. “Those would be bison, scientific name Bison bison bison, commonly called buffalo by most people because they don’t know they are actually bison. The buffalo,” I continued, “is actually a wholly different animal, native to Africa and parts of Asia, like the water buffalo (Asia), and the Cape buffalo (Africa).”
“Then why do they call bison buffalo?” Good question.
Not too many years ago, in geologic time, New York used to be home to one of the largest land mammals to call North America home, the eastern wood bison (Bison bison pennsylvanicus). [Note: some authorities claim that this is an invalid subspecies.] According to the literature, these animals were larger than the plains bison of Western fame, with darker, almost black, fur (wool? hair?), grizzled around the eyes and nose, and an almost negligible hump over the shoulders. The last wild herd was slaughtered over 200 years ago down in Pennsylvania (winter 1799-1800), and the last individuals were wiped out in West Virginia twenty-five years later. Not too long after that the plains bison would be headed down the same path (although, fortunately their total annihilation was prevented).
Another subspecies of wood bison, Bison bison athabasca, called western Canada home. This animal is also larger than the plains bison, and its large hump rises forward of the front legs, making it easily distinguishable from its plains cousin, whose hump rises above the front legs. Probably because western Canada was settled more slowly than the American west, these wood bison held out longer. 1900 is usually given as the date by which they were considered to be extremely rare, but, like the plains bison, they avoided extinction. Today about 3000 still roam wild.
So, how does this tie in to the Adirondacks? Well, we do have that bison farm. Some folks have speculated that the bison on this farm are hybrids, a bison-beef combo known as a beefalo. According to their website, however, these animals are 100% plains bison – the same animals (well, the same species) that Buffalo Bill would’ve eyeballed when he roamed the plains. Bison meat is really quite good – it has a fine flavor and is very lean. The animals, however, apparently have a less-than-amenable disposition.
Is it possible that the eastern wood bison, which populated New York and points south (as far south as Georgia), made its way up to the Adirondacks? I posed this question to a friend of mine who has a fondness for extinct megafauna. He speculates that an Adirondack presence was probably unlikely since these animals were grazers, and let’s face it, until the last hundred years or so, there wasn’t a whole lot of open space for grazing in these here mountains. The rugged terrain and dense forests, not to mention all the wetlands, would probably have been a great deterrent to these mighty animals.
Still, it is fun to speculate on “what might have been” back when the glaciers started to retreat. All sorts of giant mammals roamed North America: giant ground sloths, the stag-moose (or elk-moose), mastodons, woolly mammoths. Then there were the carnivores, like the dire wolf – the name alone almost makes one shudder. Might any of these wondrous animals have tromped the trails to our backcountry lakes and ponds? Maybe not, but just because we’ve found no bones, doesn’t mean that one or two didn’t pass this way.
Now, as to why bison are called buffalo, here’s what I found out. Going back linguistically to the Greek, we have “bison,” which referred to a large, ox-like animal. The French called oxen “les boeuf”. It seems that French fur trappers called the animals they found here “les boeuf” because they reminded them of they oxen back home, and, as will happen with languages, the word stuck and was corrupted, eventually becoming “buffalo.”
Finally, just in case there are some folks out there who will insist that a bison by any other name will still smell the same, here are some buffalo vs. bison factoids:
Buffalo: 13 pairs of ribs; no hump
Bison: 14 pairs of ribs; big ol’ hump at the shoulders
Also, bison are considered to be more like mountain goats, muskoxen, and big horn sheep than buffalo, although all are in the same family, Bovidae. And, just for the record, there is a European bison, too, which is smaller than the American version, and is mostly found today in Poland, although there are some small herds living in neighboring countries.
In the meantime, there are some modern day bison that call the Adirondacks home, and they can be found not too far from Newcomb: down the Blue Ridge Road, just off exit 29 from the Northway in North Hudson. Because these are wild animals (don’t let the word “farm” deceive you), visitors cannot get up close to them (a wise precaution – bison can be snarky animals). But, there is a great viewing platform right there where one can gaze down into the pastures and almost picture what it might have been like 500 years ago…just outside the Park.
Photo courtesy The Adirondack Buffalo Company