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Global Ideas

Meet Europe's bisons?

What is the difference between a wisent and a bison? Where do they live, and how? What do they eat? Find out everything you need to know about the "European King of the Forest."

European bisent, also know as wisent

The shy animals are known for being gentle. But they can attack at any time

Is the animal called wisent or bison?

It depends on which species you mean: European bison are called wisent. Their close relatives in America are called buffalo or bison. The two species are so closely related that they can even procreate.

Where do they live?

Foto: A wisent roams on a snow-covered field (Foto: Mateusz Szymura)

Both the male and female species have horns

Bison in general live out on the wide open steppe, while the wisent live in densely forested areas. They are grazing animals, so the wisent would probably be a lot more comfortable on open fields, too. But Europe has no uninhabited steppe to offer, so the wisent here had to find alternatives. The majority of today’s wisent live in zoos around Europe - wild herds are a rare find. There are a few in Lithuania, Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Poland. The biggest wisent population – more than 1,000 – are to found in the Bialowieza National Park.

How big and fast can a wisent be?

They can weigh as much as a small car, they can reach two meters in height and their bodies can be about three meters long – making the wisent the largest land mammal in Europe. They spend most of the day eating, putting away up to 60 kilograms of plants daily. But even though the wisent is big and heavy, it still manages to reach speeds of 40 kilometers per hour and can even jump up to two meters in the air over obstacles on the ground.

Do wisent live in herds or on their own?

Foto: A young wisent leans on his mother (Foto: Mateusz Szymura)

Female wisent are pregnant for eight months. The young remain with their mothers in the herd.

Only the females live in the herd with their young. The males mostly roam on their own.

A bull is allowed into the herd for two months a year, during mating season in late summer.

Before that happens, though, all the contenders fight it out for the right to the herd. The strongest one wins and can stay while the others are left empty-handed.

The European bison is a wild animal – so is it scared of humans?

To the delight of tourists – and the dismay of farmers – wisent are not afraid of people. Wisent in Bialowieza not only roam through fields, they also wander into private gardens to pluck apples. Villagers living nearby the forest see the animals almost on a daily basis. But even though wisent have lost their fear of people, they cannot be domesticated. In fact, they are the only European animals that have not been tamed.

Author: Marta Grudzinska /ss
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar