An American legend


Lott, D.F. (2002) American bison: a natural history. Organisms and environments series, no. 6. University of California Press, Berkeley, USA. xvi + 229 pp, maps, black and white plates, index. Hardback: price $29.95, £19.95, ISBN 0-520-23338-7.

Although this wonderful book is entitled American bison: a natural history, it is much more. It is an engaging story about the ecology of the Great Plains, set in the context of how bison interact with their environment. The complex story involves a combination of natural processes, grassland ecosystem dynamics, human impact and animal behaviour — all set in an ecological/evolutionary context.

Lott's delightful writing style interweaves scientific findings and personal experiences, anecdotes and insights. An accomplished behavioural ecologist, Lott spent his early years living on and, later, near the National Bison Range. He therefore has an unusual perspective not shared by most other bison researchers. He has studied bison for years, and his enduring respect for this magnificent animal is evident throughout the book.

Chapters 1–3 (Part 1) describe bison behaviours and relationships with other members of the herd, broken down by bull/bull, cow/bull, cow/cow and cow/calf interactions. It is not just a litany of bison behaviours, however. Lott ties it together by insights into the evolutionary context of the behaviours and how it all relates to the ultimate goal — calf production and getting one's genes into the next generation. The description of cow/calf interactions is a bit anthropomorphic, but overall, the accounts of bison behaviours and interactions are excellent.

Chapters 4–6 (Part 2) give details on bison athleticism, digestion and temperature control, but again, it is not just a dry description of bison physiology. Lott describes ruminant digestion in the context of coevolution between plants evolving to cope with grazing and bison evolving to exploit plants. Regarding temperature, Lott asks the question, ‘Why aren’t all buffalo white?’ He goes on to give a little history of several of the white bison born on the National Bison Range. He explains why the dark, dense fur of most bison is a great adaptation for cold winters, and how these coat characteristics ultimately made the ‘buffalo robe’ a lucrative commodity.

Chapters 7–8 (Part 3) cover bison ancestry and estimating bison populations in primitive America. Here, Lott discusses the fossil record for bison and the possible human influence on ancient species of bison. He gives a brief, yet excellent, history of the woods bison in Canada in relation to that of the plains bison, and discusses the ‘hybrid’ controversy, and whether or not these really are separate subspecies. Lott gives an excellent account of how early bison numbers were estimated to be about 60 million and how a more realistic number might be only about 30 million or less; what we have taken for ‘fact’ in the past is probably a gross overestimate.

Chapter 9 (Part 4) is a wonderful account of grassland ecology on the Great Plains. It gives a clear, concise story of how the grasslands came to be and how factors like precipitation, topography and soils influence it — again in the context of how bison interact with it.

Chapters 10–18 (Part 5) are devoted to other species of the Great Plains that are either directly or indirectly influenced by bison presence, or conversely, species that affect bison. Wolves, ‘buffalo birds’ (cowbirds), diseases, parasites, pronghorn, prairie dogs, badgers, coyotes, grizzlies and black-footed ferrets are all included. In several chapters, the connection between the bison and the other species was not laid out as clearly as it might have been. The account about how pronghorn and bison partition the habitat by how and what they eat, was enlightening.

Chapters 19–25 (Part 6) deal with humans and their relationships with bison. Lott gives some of his insights into the ‘taming’ of bison by humans, and the human psychology involved with our need to ‘dominate’ a species. The history of how bison have been hunted over the centuries is intriguing. It includes a short history of the different groups of Native Americans on the Great Plains and how the coming of the horse changed everything, especially how bison could then be more efficiently hunted. Chapter 21 addresses the estimation of bison numbers before ‘the Great Slaughter’, but some of this information seems a little redundant after reading Chapter 8. The chapters on attitudes and conservation are excellent. Lott stresses the great importance of keeping wild bison ‘wild’ and preserving those genes. He expounds on the dangers of selectively breeding bison to produce a more tractable animal — one that is easier to keep on a farm/ranch, in other words breeding towards domestication. If these more domesticated animals are allowed to interbreed with the wild herds, the bison as we know them will cease to exist. Lott is a strong advocate for the establishment of a Great Plains Park where wild bison and their prairie neighbours could be protected.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. My greatest criticism is that scientific works are not cited throughout the text. Lott opts instead to include a ‘Notes’ section in the back of the book where he mentions some references referring to specific information on specific pages. He then includes an extensive bibliography so that the reader has the complete list of works consulted. Although Lott often mentions the work of various scientists throughout the text, it is not always clear, even with the notes, what work is being referred to (some authors have multiple works listed). There are some places in the book where it is unclear whether the information presented is from another source or from Lott's personal observation and/or opinion. Having references included in the text would prevent this uncertainty.

In summary, this book is a welcome addition to your library, if you are any kind of bison enthusiast!