Wilma and Zora, American bison at Smithsonian’s National Zoo (Photo: Barbara Statas, Smithsonian’s National Zoo)
The story of the American Plains bison looms large in our country’s national and natural history. Known scientifically as Bison bison bison and more commonly as buffalo, these massive mammals played a critical role in the shaping both the ecological health of the Great Plains and the culture of its native people. For them, the buffalo determined their nomadic movements, provided food, clothing, and shelter, and were integral to creation stories and ceremonial life.
After centuries of overhunting, the millions of bison that once roamed the plains are now diminished to fewer than 20,000 in conservation herds, but the recovery of this iconic species is considered an important success. That achievement has links to the Smithsonian, where a herd of bison once fed on the grass in front of the Castle and later found a new home with the establishment of the National Zoo in 1891.
Two Smithsonian staff members provide insights into the scientific and cultural significance of the bison. Paul Marinari, senior curator for species survival at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), discusses the general biology and natural history of the bison, its place in the early days of the Smithsonian, and the work of the National Zoo and SCBI related to the species. Emil Her Many Horses, an associate curator in the office of museum research at the American Indian Museum who specializes in Northern and Southern Plains culture, examines the historical significance of the buffalo to native peoples.
Learn how a how a Smithsonian taxidermist’s 1880 bison exhibit at the precursor to the Natural History Museum led to the birth of a conservation movement.
S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)