An Ultimate Guide to Steppe Bison: Giants of the Grasslands

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 24th September 2023

NameSteppe BisonDietHerbivorous 
Name Meaning“Terrible Hand”Height2.13 meters (7 feet)
Pronunciationstɛp baɪsənLength11–12 feet (3.4–3.7 meters)
EraCenozoic – QuaternaryWeight1,100–2,500 lbs (500–1,100 kg)
ClassificationArtiodactyla,‭ Bovidae,‭ & BovinaeLocationEurope, Asia, North America

Steppe Bison Pictures

Steppe Bison
Steppe Bison | Robert Pawlicki via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

The Steppe Bison

Gage Beasley Prehistoric's Steppe Bison Concept
Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Steppe Bison Concept

Few animals have piqued the interest of academics and amateurs in studying prehistoric life as much as the Steppe Bison (Bison priscus).

Throughout the Ice Age, this majestic and hardy species roamed wide areas of Eurasia, leaving an imprint that can never be erased from the history of our world.

Even though its influence lasted for tens of thousands of years, it is still felt thanks to the complex network of scientific advancements, historical discoveries, and improved knowledge of prehistoric ecosystems.

Imagine a gigantic animal moving through the Pleistocene with imposing horns and big, humped shoulders.

The morphological characteristics of the Steppe Bison were wonders of natural selection, designed to help it survive in severe climatic circumstances.

The fascinating story of how this extinct bovid dominated the Ice Age terrain and outlasted merciless predators is revealed by examining its adaptations, including its distinctive appearance and strong physical makeup.

Bison priscus skeleton at the Mammoth Museum in the Canton of Zürich, Switzerland
Bison priscus skeleton at the Mammoth Museum in the Canton of Zürich, Switzerland | Stacy via Wikipedia CC BY 2.0

This creature was not discovered in a single instance or location, as it is a species known from multiple fossil findings and excavations over the years.

The Pleistocene bison belt is another name for this extensive distribution.

The Steppe Bison’s fossil discovery can be traced back to the 19th century at various sites across Eurasia and Central North America.

These fossils have been instrumental in reconstructing the species’ appearance and behaviors and understanding its role in past ecosystems.

In this article, we will attempt to provide as much information as possible about this creature, spanning its appearance, preferred habitat, social behavior, etc.

Keep reading to discover more.

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Gage Beasley’s Prehistoric Shirt Collection
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Gage Beasley’s Prehistoric Plush Collection

Physical Characteristics

The Steppe Bison was one of the largest bovids ever, rivaling its modern-day relatives, such as the American Bison.

Fully grown adults could reach remarkable heights at the shoulder, standing almost seven feet tall.

Gage Beasley Prehistoric's Steppe Bison Size Comparison Chart
Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Steppe Bison Size Comparison Chart

Their length from head to tail spanned an impressive 11 to 12 feet, showcasing the sheer magnitude of their presence.

In terms of weight, there was evidence of sexual dimorphism, as the males outweighed the females.

A male Steppe Bison could weigh anywhere from 1,900 to 2,500 pounds, while females generally ranged from 1,100 to 2,000 pounds.

Such imposing size and bulk were essential for survival in the challenging and resource-scarce grasslands.

Appearance-wise, this creature was very similar to the European bison, so much so that it was difficult to tell them apart if their skeletons were incomplete.

The primary difference between them is in their size and the color of their coats.

Steppe Bison with its shaggy coat in a museum
Steppe Bison with its shaggy coat in a museum | Image via Nature Rules Fandom

A thick and shaggy coat further accentuated the Steppe Bison’s appearance.

This dense fur served as a crucial adaptation to survive the extreme temperatures of the Eurasian steppe, which experienced cold and harsh winters.

The coat varied in color, ranging from dark brown to reddish-brown or even gray, with individual variations among species members.

However, experts believe the creature’s coat varied depending on the season and that the Steppe Bison sometimes exhibited a lighter-colored coat in the summer.

This seasonal color change provided effective camouflage amidst the dry grasses and vegetation of the steppe, offering protection from predators and contributing to their overall survival.

Illustration of a Steppe Bison with its robust physique
Illustration of a Steppe Bison with its robust physique | Masonthetrex0916  via DinopediaFandom

Other notable features of the Steppe Bison were its head and horns.

The creature’s head was a prominent feature of its robust physique.

It was large and elongated, exhibiting distinct adaptations suited for its environment and way of life.

The Steppe Bison possessed keen senses, vital for detecting potential dangers and locating food sources.

Its large eyes were positioned on the sides of its head, providing a wide field of vision, particularly useful for detecting predators and threats from different angles.

Its acute sense of smell also allowed it to detect predators, locate water sources, and identify suitable grazing areas over long distances.

The most striking feature of the Steppe Bison’s head was its horns.

Composed of a bony core, it was covered with a keratin sheath, the same material that forms human fingernails and hair.

Both males and females sported horns, though those of males tended to be larger and more robust.

Habitat and Distribution

The Steppe Bison is an extinct species of bison that once roamed the vast grasslands of Eurasia and North America during the Pleistocene epoch.

This creature was adapted to living in various habitats, predominantly thriving in the vast steppes, grasslands, and open woodlands that characterized much of Eurasia and North America during the Pleistocene Era.

These environments offered abundant grasses and low shrubs, making them ideal grazing grounds for the bison.

The bison’s physical characteristics, such as a large hump on its shoulders, strong limbs, and a broad muzzle, were evolutionary adaptations that enabled it to graze on coarse vegetation efficiently.

It was highly nomadic following climate changes that influenced the seasonal availability of food and water and its migratory patterns.

Cave of Altamira
Paleolithic rock painting of a bison and a horse from the Altamira cave, Santillana del Mar, Cantabria, Spain | JESUSDEFUENSANTA via iStock

The Steppe Bison had an extensive range across Eurasia, extending from modern-day Spain in the west to eastern Siberia in the east.

The creature has appeared in cave art in the Caves of Altamira and Lascaux.

Fossil evidence suggests that Steppe Bison populations were particularly dense in the central regions of Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

The Steppe Bison also inhabited parts of Eastern Europe, including Hungary and Romania.

In North America, it thrived in the Great Plains region, spreading as far south as Mexico and as far north as Alaska.

It was a significant component of the diverse Pleistocene megafauna that inhabited the continent.

Glaciation depiction
Glaciation depiction | kritz Workroom via iStock

During periods of glaciation when sea levels were lower, the Bering Land Bridge emerged, connecting Eurasia with North America.

This allowed for the intermixing of Steppe Bison populations between the two continents.

As the Ice Age waned and glaciers retreated, the bridge disappeared, again isolating the populations.

Behavior and Diet

Experts believe the Steppe Bison was a highly social animal like present-day bison.

Steppe Bison were highly social animals known for forming large and cohesive herds.

These herds were crucial for their survival, offering protection from predators, facilitating efficient foraging, and promoting breeding opportunities.

A herd of Steppe Bison
A herd of Steppe Bison | thecoreworlds via Reddit

The size of the herds varied throughout the year as they migrated in search of abundant food resources.

Typically, the herds consisted of mixed-age groups, with adults and their offspring comprising the core.

The matriarchal system played a significant role in herd cohesion as older females led the group to preferred grazing areas and water sources.

Bulls tended to remain solitary or form bachelor groups outside the breeding season, joining the herds during mating periods.

Within the Steppe Bison herds, a clear social hierarchy existed.

Dominant individuals, usually older females and experienced bulls, held positions of authority.

Subordinates would yield to them during feeding, mating, and other herd activities.

Effective communication was vital for the survival and coordination of the Steppe Bison herds.

Steppe Bison grazing grass
Steppe Bison grazing grass | Tylwyth Eldar via Wikimedia Commons

Although limited by their lack of spoken language, they relied heavily on body language, vocalizations, and scent marking to convey information and maintain social bonds.

Vocalizations included various low-pitched grunts, bellows, and roars likely to signal danger, initiate mating, and maintain contact within the herd.

The deep, resonating bellow of a dominant bull could be heard from a considerable distance and served to establish dominance and attract potential mates.

Scent marking was also a significant aspect of their communication.

Bison leave distinctive scents through secretions from their preorbital glands and urine to mark territories, identify individuals, and communicate reproductive readiness.

This olfactory communication helped reinforce social hierarchies and minimize conflict within the herd.

Ancient Steppe Bison on the rocks
Ancient Steppe Bison on the rocks | Masonthetrex0916 via Dinopedia Fandom

The Steppe Bison’s primary diet consisted of various grasses and sedges abundant in the open grasslands and steppes.

As grazers, they would move in large herds, feeding on grasses and other low-lying vegetation, using their powerful neck muscles to sweep their heads from side to side while grazing.

Their ability to adapt to diverse food sources allowed them to thrive in different habitats across their vast range.

The distribution and abundance of plant resources influenced the foraging behavior of Steppe Bison.

They were migratory animals that followed seasonal patterns of vegetation growth.

During the warmer months, they would move to areas with plentiful fresh grasses and other herbaceous plants.

In the colder months, they would migrate to more sheltered regions where they could find sufficient forage to sustain them through the winter.

Life Cycle

Steppe Bison Image Illustration
Steppe Bison Image Illustration | Lgcfm via Zt2 Library Fandom

During the mating season, usually in late summer or early autumn, mature male Steppe Bison competed for the attention of receptive females.

These courtship rituals often involved displays of strength and dominance, with powerful clashes between rival males.

Once a female selected a mate, she would carry the calf in her womb for around nine months.

Calving occurred in the spring, when the abundance of vegetation provided optimal nutrition for the young ones.

The mother would protect her calf from potential threats, ensuring its survival during the vulnerable early days of life.

Thanks to their mother’s nutrient-rich milk, Steppe Bison calves grew rapidly during their early months.

As the calf matured, it slowly began grazing on tougher grasses and shrubs.

Matured Steppe Bison grazing
Matured Steppe Bison grazing | Masonthetrex0916 via Dinopedia Fandom

As Steppe Bison approached adulthood, they underwent significant physical changes.

Males, in particular, developed larger and more robust bodies with impressive horns used in dominance displays and territorial defense.

Around two to three years old, male bison reached sexual maturity and started competing for mates during the mating season.

Females also matured around two to three years old and became capable of bearing offspring.

The cyclic nature of reproduction ensured the continuity of the species, with herd dynamics being essential in maintaining a balanced population and healthy genetic diversity.

Evolution and History

The extinct Steppe Bison
The extinct Steppe Bison | Masonthetrex0916 via Dinopedia Fandom

The lineage of the Steppe Bison can be traced back to the early Pleistocene, approximately two million years ago.

It is believed to have emerged in Asia, particularly in the region known as Beringia, which connected present-day Alaska and Siberia during periods of lower sea levels.

This area served as a bridge for the migration of numerous animal species between the continents.

The presence of the Steppe Bison significantly impacted the lives of early human populations.

Archaeological findings reveal that early humans heavily relied on bison as a vital food source, providing sustenance and raw materials for tools, clothing, and shelter.

Prehistoric cave paintings in Northern Spain
Prehistoric cave paintings in Northern Spain | PS3000 via iStock

Cave paintings, such as those in Altamira and Lascaux, provide compelling evidence of the profound connection between early humans and the Steppe Bison.

As the Ice Age ended, global climate patterns shifted, resulting in the retreat of open grasslands in favor of forested landscapes.

The loss of suitable habitat and increased competition from other herbivores may have contributed to the decline of Steppe Bison populations.

Additionally, human hunting pressure intensified during the late Pleistocene.

The advent of sophisticated hunting techniques and a growing human population put considerable strain on bison populations.

Evidence of mass kill sites, known as bison jumps, indicates that early humans actively targeted large herds of bison, leading to population declines.

Interactions with Other Species

The mighty Steppe Bison
The mighty Steppe Bison | Image via Pinterest

The Steppe Bison, one of the largest herbivores of its time, would have been a significant prey item for numerous predators.

Carnivores such as the cave lion, the hyena, and the Eurasian wolf are among the top predators that would have hunted the Steppe Bison.

Alongside the cave paintings, experts also found the bones of Steppe Bison in caves, meaning these other carnivores frequently killed and ate the bison.

Also, as a large herbivore, the Steppe Bison would have inevitably competed for resources with other herbivorous species, including horses, saiga antelopes, woolly mammoths, and reindeer.

Food availability and seasonal migrations likely influenced the extent of competition among these species.

A steppe bison on display at the University of Alaska Museum
A steppe bison on display at the University of Alaska Museum | Bernt Rostad via WIkipedia CC BY 2.0

The Steppe Bison’s grazing habits would have significantly influenced the vegetation structure and composition of the Eurasian steppe.

As a grazer, its diet mainly consisted of grasses and other plants, which would have affected the abundance and distribution of vegetation.

Steppe Bison indirectly influenced other herbivores’ distribution and behavior by shaping the landscape, thereby contributing to complex ecological dynamics.

The arrival of early human populations, including Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, during the late Pleistocene added a new dimension to the Steppe Bison’s interactions.

Archaeological evidence reveals that these early humans hunted and utilized the Steppe Bison for food, clothing, and tools.

Cave paintings depicting bison and artifacts from their bones attest to their significance in human cultures and subsistence.

Cultural Significance

Bison horns
Bison horns | FunkMonk via Wikimedia Commons

The Steppe Bison played a crucial role in the lives of prehistoric communities that depended on hunting for survival.

These early human populations relied heavily on the bison as a primary food, clothing, and shelter source.

The creature’s ability to adapt to various environments and its vast herds made it a key resource for sustaining these ancient cultures, leading to its integration into their daily lives and belief systems.

Various ancient societies also revered the bison as a deity or spirit associated with life and abundance, giving it symbolic significance in many cultures.

The bison left an indelible mark on prehistoric art and symbolism, with its images appearing in rock paintings, cave art, and petroglyphs across different regions.

Bison cave paintings
Bison cave paintings | PS3000 via iStock

These artistic expressions depict the bison in various forms, ranging from simple renderings to intricate and detailed portrayals.

Such depictions provide valuable insights into the significance of this creature in ancient cultures and its representation in the collective imagination of those societies.


The Steppe Bison, Bison Priscus, was a magnificent and awe-inspiring creature that dominated the Ice Age grasslands of Eurasia and North America.

This ultimate guide has shed light on this now-extinct bovid species’ physical characteristics, habitat, behavior, and evolution.

As one of the largest herbivores to walk the Earth, the Steppe Bison played a pivotal role in the lives of prehistoric communities, serving as a vital resource for sustenance, clothing, and shelter.

Its symbolic significance in ancient cultures is evident through rock art and cave paintings, illustrating early humans’ profound connection with this majestic creature.

While the Steppe Bison’s physical presence may have vanished from our world, its cultural legacy and impact on humanity continue to resonate, reminding us of the complex interplay between nature and human history.


Are there any well-preserved Steppe Bison fossils on display in museums?

Yes, many natural history museums worldwide have well-preserved Steppe Bison fossils on display.

These fossils offer visitors a glimpse into the appearance and life of this majestic Ice Age creature.

How do researchers study the Steppe Bison despite its extinction?

Researchers study the Steppe Bison through paleontological methods, analyzing fossil remains and reconstructing its appearance and behaviors based on the available evidence.

Additionally, scientific advancements allow researchers to extract and analyze ancient DNA to learn more about its genetics and evolution.


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