I learned something this week. I’m not sure how it happened, but the topic of bison came up. It might have had something to do with Thanksgiving. In any case, I discovered how bison are different from buffaloes. I will list these differences and then explain how my newfound knowledge has led me to reevaluate the Darwinian notion of adaptation.
To begin with, bison and buffaloes are distinct species even though they belong to the same family (bovidae). Secondly, despite that famous, American folk tune about roaming bovidae, the buffaloes of the Great Plains (and Upstate New York for that matter) are not buffaloes at all but bison. Finally, the plural of bison is bison, not bisons, bisones, or “bisonx.”
You may find the differences useful as well as interesting when you’re stuck in a social situation that requires small talk: e.g., an online date, waiting for the last member of a breakout room, standing six feet away from the next person in line at Whole Foods. To make it easy, I have reduced the differences to four. Think of it as one per hoof.
Hoof one: Bison live in North America, buffaloes in Asia and Africa. Hoof two: Bison are bigger, weighing as much as two-and-a-half tons, with a massive hump on their back and ponderous heads. Hoof three: Bison have fur, lots of it, that they shed in summer, buffaloes do not. Hoof four: Bison have short, sharp horns for defending themselves when threatened or a clueless tourist wanders too close. Buffaloes’ horns are not as sharp, curved, and much longer.
To nuance this, the American Bison consists of two groups: Wood Bison and Plains Bison. Buffaloes can be divided into two groups as well: the Water Buffalo and Cape Buffalo. The former lives in Asia, Africa, and Southern Europe. The latter in the grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa. Both are easily domesticated. Contrast that with bison, who can be quite aggressive. I would caution against trying to milk one.
Now, when I found out that bison have a Marty Feldman hump and a lumbering head that can weigh as much as four hundred pounds because of the environment they inhabit, I thought of Darwin. For Darwin, survival belongs not to the strongest, fastest, or even smartest species. Rather, it belongs to the one that adapts to change. The Plains Bison have adapted to brutal conditions such as subzero temperatures, snowstorms, and twisters. Their hump and head evolved to push through deep snow to reach the grass below during winter. Anyone who has shoveled a driveway or sidewalk can appreciate that.
I find it incredible that bison have adapted so well to their environment, but I also wonder why they didn’t leave that environment for milder climes. Was the grass of Wyoming so sweet that they preferred to grow humps for plowing through snow rather than risk heading south into the unknown? Many bird species head south, of course, as do Canadian snowbirds who like to spend winter in West Palm Beach. So, it isn’t out of the question. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that they should have called a board meeting to relocate their headquarters, but which is easier: sprouting a four-hundred-pound head or starting to walk south?
Since they live in herds, I don’t know if bison make decisions collectively or individually. I don’t know if they make decisions at all or simply react to what’s in front of them, whether a snowstorm, Cheyenne hunters, or European traders who nearly exterminated them by the 1890s. I am not knowledgeable enough to claim anything except to wonder what the bison may teach us, which is what the Cheyenne, Sioux, and other plains peoples wondered.
For instance, our prehistoric ancestors are believed to have migrated out of Africa into Asia and Europe. They then continued migrating, spreading across all three continents and adapting, not unlike bison, to the environment, which accounts for racial and ethnic differences today. But, ironically, we are at root rootless beings. Home nurtures and defines us, and we spend our lives trying either to find it or recreate it. But we often do so by leaving it, by wandering through inner and outer worlds and returning as the same yet different people. This is St. Paul’s new creation, which may be our version of a massive hump and head.
I often have wondered whether the wise thing is to leave or stay, fly away or drive a stake in the ground and stay put. It’s a complicated question. My family left as did millions of others, and we continue to thrive as a nation of immigrants. I am reminded of Abram who left his father’s house in Mesopotamia and became Abraham, the head of a new people.
In the end, while I may question the wisdom of plowing through snow on the plains rather than heading south, one thing is certain. The bison have endured. They have been around longer than us, and, if we let them, they may yet teach us how to live in a world of constant change.
That may be their greatest lesson.