12 Reasons Bison Are Awesome

Written by Aaron-Michael Fox.

Marco the Bison, the beloved mascot for Marshall University, is one of the most popular in college sports (winning the National Mascot Championship in 1992) and a familiar feature to MU fans at all athletic and community outreach events involving the university.

But did you know the American Bison is the national mammal of the United States? After being hunted to near extinction in the late 1800s, on May 9, 2016, President Barack Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act into law, officially making the American Bison the national mammal of the United States and putting it among the ranks of the Bald Eagle as an official symbol of these states united.

Like the country, Marshall University took a roundabout way of falling in love with the bison. The early teams, which wore black and blue uniforms, were called the “Indians” or the “Normalists” (after Marshall’s original status as a “normal school”). When the school colors were changed to green and white in 1903, the teams became known as the “Big Green.”

However, in 1928, then-sports writer for the Herald-Dispatch Duke Ridgley began calling the teams “The Thundering Herd” after the Zane Grey novel of the same name. The name was a hit with the students who, in 1930, procured a live bison from a ranch in Oklahoma. The bison was named “Marco” as a shortening of Marshall College. The college became a university in 1961, but the name has endured.

A human Marco first appeared in 1954 and has survived to this day despite a few attempts to bring back the live bison including one famous incident where a live (and somewhat upset) Marco got loose from his cage and charged around the field during the legendary Xavier game in 1971.

In the wake of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Marco was given a female companion named “Marsha”in 1973, but she only lasted through the end of the decade and hasn’t been seen since (some have argued that MU should bring her back, since it’s hard to have a “herd” with one bison).

So as we head into a new academic year, I thought we’d take a look at the American Bison and what makes it so special to our country and university. The information comes from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

#1. Bison are the largest mammal in North America

Male bison (called bulls) weigh up to 2,000 pounds and stand 6 feet tall, while females (called cows) weigh up to 1,000 pounds and reach a height of 4-5 feet. This is good enough for the title of largest mammal in North America.

#2. Bison are deceptively docile

Bison may appear slow and bulky, but that is a misconception as they can run up to 35 miles per hour. Plus, they’re extremely agile and can spin around quickly, jump high fences, and are very strong swimmers.

#3. Bison bison bison

No, my keyboard didn’t get stuck, I meant to type bison three times in the heading. The indigenous bison that would have roamed West Virginia’s hills 250 years ago would’ve been the eastern woodlands bison, which is scientifically called a “Bison bison bison” (genus: Bison, species: bison, subspecies: bison). People often use the word “buffalo” to describe these animals, but they would be wrong.

#4. Bison are transplants from Asia

Bison made their way to America by crossing the ancient land bridge that once connected Asia with North America some 400,000 years ago. These ancient animals were much larger than the iconic bison of today. Fossil records show that some prehistoric bison had horns measuring nine feet from tip to tip.

#5. The history of bison and Native Americans are intertwined

Bison have been integral to American tribal culture since the dawn of time, providing people with food, clothing, fuel, tools, shelter, and spiritual value. Bison were basically a walking department store for early Americans.

#6. Teddy Roosevelt helped save bison from extinction

In 1883, future-president Theodore Roosevelt traveled to the Dakota Territory (now North and South Dakota) to hunt bison.

After spending a few years in the west, Roosevelt returned to New York with a new outlook on life. He immediately started paving the way for the modern conservation movement, and in 1905, formed the American Bison Society with William Hornaday to save the rapidly disappearing bison.

Today, the American bison is no longer listed as an endangered or threatened animal with more than 400,000 bison now living across all 50 states, including West Virginia.

*It should be noted that 400 thousand is still a far cry from the 60 million bison that were here before the arrival of Europeans.

#7. Bison can live up to 20 years or more

The average lifespan for a bison is 10-20 years, but some can live even longer. Bison do not partner for life. They will typically “date” until the female is ready to mate, then they will go their separate ways. Females carry one calf at a time and typically give birth in late March-early May.

#8. A red what?

Bison calves tend to be orange-red in color, earning them the nickname “red dogs” by early pioneers. After a few months, their hair starts to change to dark brown and their characteristic shoulder hump and horns begin to grow.

#9. The tail tells the tale

When a bison’s tail hangs down and swishes naturally, the bison is usually calm and in a good mood. If the tail is twitching irritably, you should watch out. If the tail is straight up, you better get out of Dodge because it’s likely to charge at any moment.

#10. Dirt baths

Called wallowing, bison roll in the dirt to deter biting flies and help shed fur. Male bison also wallow during mating season to leave their scent behind.

#11. Bison are near-sighted

While bison have poor eyesight, they have excellent senses of smell and hearing. Cows and calves communicate using pig-like grunts, and during mating season, bulls can be heard bellowing for miles.

#12. Every day is hump day

A bison’s massive hump is comprised of muscles supported by long vertebrae. This allows a bison to have massive side to side swinging power and range of motion. This is particularly useful when defending against predators and clearing packed snow to get at the leafy grasses underneath.


So what does all this mean? Well, I think it means that Marshall University and the U.S. of A. have the coolest mascot possible of any animal on earth. Some people think they’re ugly, which is a sentiment I’ve never shared, nor understood.

Since I was a kid I put them up there with the triceratops and the wooly mammoth on the “coolness” scale and I still stand by that now. In my mind, the bison is worthy of its status alongside the bald eagle, the rattlesnake, steam engine trains, sternwheeler riverboats, moonshine, and the six-shooter as symbols of how bad@$$ America is.

And if you don’t agree, oh well, Marco don’t give a hump.

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