Bison bonasus caucasicus


Kingdom Animalia

An image of a killed Caucasian Bison from E. Demidoff's book 'Hunting Trips in The Caucasus' (1889). This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to the European Union, Canada, the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.

Phylum Chordata 
Class Mammalia 
Order Artiodactyla
Family Bovidae
Genus Bison
Species Bison bonasus
Subspecies Bison bonasus caucasicus
Authority Turkin et Satunin, 1904
TEW Status Extinct (EX), Year assessed: 2010
IUCN Status Not Evaluated
English Name Caucasian Bison, Caucasian Wisent, Caucasian European Bison, Mountain Bison
Czech Name Zubr Kavkazský
Dutch Name Kaukasuswisent
French Name Bison du Caucase
German Name Kaukasuswisent, Bergwisent
Hungarian Name Kaukázusi Bölény
Japanese Name コーカサスバイソン
Norwegian Name Kaukasisk Visent
Polish Name Żubr Kaukaski
Portuguese Name Bisăo-caucasiano
Slovak Name Zubor Kaukazský, Zubor Horský
Spanish Name Bisonte Caucásico
Swedish Name Bergsvisen, Kaukaisksvisent
Characteristics The Caucasian bison differed from the Lowland bison by its smaller size, a slender constitution, a flat frontal skull surface, short and curly fur, and a brush at the tail. All adaptations to a highland environment. The hair of the beard of the Caucasian bison was not longer than 25 cm.
Range & Habitat In the 17th century the Caucasian bison still occurred in the mountainous North Caucasus from the Pshish River in the west to the Terek River in the East, and from the Inguri River in the south to Kuban River in the north. Its range was found in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Russian Federation (Republics of Adygea, Karachayevo-Cherkesiya, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya).

Image: map showing the possible previous range of the Caucasian bison (in red). Created by Peter Maas for The Extinction Website. This image has been released under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives 3.0 Licence.

History & Population

The following excerpts are taken from "Puzek, Z., et al., 2002, European Bison Bison bonasus: Current state of the species and an action plan for its conservation. Mammal Research Institute, Polish Academy of Sciences, Bialowieza".

"The general assumption is that genus Bison H. Smith, 1827 has it origin in southern Asia. From the late Pliocene of India deposits of Probison dehmi Sahmi et Kahn, 1968 are known, while Protobison kushkunensis Burtschak-Abramowitsch, Gadziev et Vekua, 1980 comes from late Pliocene of Trans-Caucasia. According to Flerov (1979) Bison sivalensis Lydekker (ex Falconer, 1878) can be traced from the first of these forms. Late Pliocene Bison paleosinensis Teilhard de Chardin et Pivetau, 1930 is probably a representative of Bison priscus Bojanus, 1829. During the late Pliocene and early Pleistocene bison were widely spread throughout the temperate zones of Asia and Europe. They also penetrated through Bering Strait to North America. Forms reaching from Asia to Eastern Europe (near the Black Sea and the south Ukraine) during Villafranchium were relatively short-horned. Longhorn forms (Bison priscus) developed in large areas of Europe and Asia, from England to Manchuria during the mid-Pleistocene. With the cessation of glaciation bison became smaller in size, especially in Western Europe, with shorter horns (Bison priscus mediator) as compared with east Europe and Asia (Bison priscus gigas).  

During the early Holocene bison were still widespread but still did not inhabit northern Europe. At the end of the Würm, a transitory form appeared between Bison priscus and Bison bonasus (European Bison), described as Bison bonasus major Hilzheimer, 1918. Bison bonasus did not occur in central Europe until the late Holocene. During the last glaciation, perhaps in Caucasian region, it appeared, spreading to the west and north." 

Later three subspecies are recognized, namely the Lowland bison Bison bonasus bonasus (Linnaeus, 1758), Carpathian bison Bison bonasus hungarorum Kretzoi, 1946 and the Caucasian bison Bison bonasus caucasicus Turkin et Satunin, 1904.

(The following excerpts are taken from "Lidia V. Zablotskaya, Mikhail A. Zablotsky and Marina M. Zablotskaya, Origin of the hybrids of North American and European bison in the Caucasus Mountains".) "The Caucasian bison still populated a considerable area of the North Caucasus as far back as the 17th century. With clear-cutting of the forests, and increased population of these areas by Russian settlers, the range of this subspecies in the Caucasus region was sharply reduced in the northern and eastern parts of this range. By the end of the 19th century, due to more intensive human settlement in the mountains, the range of the Caucasian bison was reduced to roughly one tenth of its original range. The eastern edge of its range became the Bolshaya Laba River and numbers also dropped sharply during this period. The only other surviving subspecies of the European bison, the Lowland bison Bison bonasus bonasus had also declined substantially. The last wild Lowland bison remained only in Bialowieza Forest, in Poland. 

Although the numbers of Caucasian bison was 2000 in the 1860s, it had dropped to 500–600 in 1917. It means nearly a fourfold decrease over a 50 yr period. In 1919 the herds of Caucasian bison suffered from epizootics of foot-and-mouth disease and anthrax introduced with domestic cattle brought into the mountains. Mortality of Caucasian bison from these diseases, and from poaching, reduced the population to 50 by 1921."

Only one Caucasian bison bull is known to have been in captivity. It was born in 1907 in the Caucausus Mountains and brought to Germany in 1908. The Hamburg animal dealer, Karl Hagenbeck, owned this bull called Kaukasus. This bull died on 26 February 1925. This bull was crossbred with cows from the Lowland bison Bison bonasus bonasus. Even today hybrid offspring from this captive Caucasian bison still survive as the European bison from the Lowland-Caucasian breeding line. This breeding line originates from the Caucausian bison bull, four Lowland bison bulls, and seven Lowland bison cows. 

In 1927 the three last wild pure Caucasian bison were killed. Numerous expeditions over a 10-year period revealed that the Caucasian subspecies of the European bison had become extinct.
Extinction Causes The period of World War I, the Russian Revolution of 1917, civil war episodes and heavy poaching became directly responsible for the complete liquidation of Caucasian bison. An increased population of the Caucasian region by Russian settlers, habitat degradation and fragmentation because of agricultural activity and forest loggings, have also contributed.
Conservation Attempts

The European bison’s survival into the 20th century was entirely due to the whim of the Tsars of Russia. Only Imperial protection and the threat of severely enforced penalties since 1803 allowed the European to survive. However, World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917 proved fatal to the European bison as they were to its Imperial protectors, the Russian Tsars.  

(The following excerpts are taken from "Puzek, Z., et al., 2002, European Bison Bison bonasus: Current state of the species and an action plan for its conservation. Mammal Research Institute, Polish Academy of Sciences, Bialowieza".) "It was difficult to organise conservation in 1922–1926, local poaching continued and in 1927, the three last Caucasian bison were killed. In 1924, when the Caucasian Reserve was established in the upper reaches of the Belaya and Malaya Laba Rivers for the conservation of the Caucasian bison, it was too late to save the Caucasian subspecies. 

After World War II the species (Bison bonasus) as a whole survived only in a few European zoological gardens. Together there were only 54 European bison left with proved pedigrees, originating from 12 ancestors (or founder animals).  

The concept of restoring the European bison using animals kept in zoos originated in several countries and was publicly presented for the first time by Polish zoologist Jan Sztolcman at the 1st International Congress of Nature Protection in Paris, 1923. The Congress supported the appeal and expressed a desire to establish an international society for the protection of the European bison. 

By August 25–26, 1923, the International Society for Protection of European Bison (Internationale Geselschaft zur Erhaltung des Wisents) was founded in Frankfurt on the Main. It included 16 countries. Dr K. Primel, the managing director of the zoological garden in Frankfurt was elected as President. The statute of the Society included the maintenance of the European bison by planned breeding and distribution, followed by introductions to large forest complexes. These goals are still valid, although the major task today is to restore the species to the wild within a reduced area of its former range and without. After World War II, the Society was not re-established in its previous form and activity, although its name was used in Poland until 1965 on the cover of the European Bison Pedigree Book (EBPB). 

During the process of European bison restitution, two periods can be distinguished. The first, lasting till 1952, involved the intensive breeding of European bison in zoological gardens, parks, and specially created reserves. A second period commenced with the creation of free-living herds. In the year 2000 the total number of European bison globally was about 2900 individuals, including about 1700 animals in free and semi-free populations. These figures represent pure blood bison, registered in the European Bison Pedigree Book. At least 700 animals remained outside this inventory because of a lack of reliable information from owners. Turnover involving these animals and attempts at including them in the pedigree system, without necessary documentation, may cause a serious threat to the world population of European bison."

The Caucasian subspecies could not be saved, but luckily the species survived. However, some genetics of the lost Caucasian subspecies have been preserved. Of the 12 ancestors, one was a Caucasian bison bull. Its genetics or certainly some of it can still be found in the Lowland-Caucasian breeding line of the European Bison Pedigree Book.
Selective Breeding

Early in the 20th century, the European bison was completely exterminated in nature, and only a small group was preserved in European zoos. Subsequently, the European bison were maintained in breeding centres and a number of free-ranging populations were formed for return into the wild. All the European bison of today originate from 12 founders. To date, only the Lowland subspecies, Lowland-Caucasian breeding line and the Highland breeding line are preserved. The Lowland line individuals are all pure animals of the Lowland subspecies, Bison bonasus bonasus. The Lowland line originates from only 7 founders, 4 bulls and 3 cows. The Lowland-Caucasian breeding line originates from from hybrids between European bison of the Lowland subspecies and one male of the Caucasian subspecies. The Highland breeding line consists of descendants from the Lowland subspecies, one male Caucasian European bison and three North American plain bison Bison bison bison

Lowland-Caucasian Breeding Line

Animals from the Lowland-Caucasian line originate from all 12 founders. It contains genes of one bull of the Caucasian subspecies and of 4 bulls and 7 cows of the Lowland subspecies. This breeding line has always been managed as an unclosed population and sometimes mixed with the Lowland line. The genetic contribution of the Caucasian bison bull is decreasing because of the Lowland line influence. The Y-chromosome of three male founders has been lost, but the Y-chromosome of the Caucasian bison bull can still be found in the current Lowland-Caucasian line. 

Photo: an European bison from the Lowland-Caucasian breeding line in the New Poznań Zoo, Poland. Photographed by Radomił Binek on 3 May 2004 and released under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Inbreeding has a depressive effect on skeletal growth, more expressed in cows. Inbreeding in particular affects the skeletons of Lowland-Caucasian animals. Increased inbreeding has resulted in changes into the skeleton. These changes indicate that the skeleton of the Lowland-Caucasian line approaches that of pure Caucasian bison, as inbreeding towards the founder of this subspecies increases. Selective breeding could be an option to recreate the Caucasian subspecies of the European bison.  

Highland Breeding Line

(The following excerpts are taken from "Rautian G.S., Kalabushkin B.A., Nemtsev A.S. 2000. A new subspecies of the European bison, Bison bonasus montanus ssp. nov. (Bovidae, Artiodactyla). Doklady Biological Sciences. 375, 4: 563-567".) 

"The Highland breeding line was formed in order to establish bison adapted to highland conditions, stable inheriting their characteristics, and possessing morphological and functional features of the completely exterminated Caucasian subspecies. 

In 1940, five hybrids between European and North American bison of the second and third generations of backcrossing targeted at the European bison were brought to the Caucasian State Nature Reserve. These animals mated between themselves up to 1950. Subsequently, cows mated with purebred Lowland-Caucasian bulls, whereas the resulting bulls were not used for breeding. As a result, the American bison admixture in the gene pool of the population was reduced to several percents. 

In 1960, the animals were introduced in the natural ecosystems of the Caucasian State of a free-ranging Caucasian population. The development of this population resulted in the formation of the modern Highland breeding line. According to some scientists the animals have adapted to the environmental conditions of the forest belt of the northwestern Caucasus. They also assume that the similarity between the Highland hybrids and the Caucasian subspecies will increase in course of further adaptation to the environmental conditions of the Caucasus. 

In 2000, these hybrids have been formally described as a new subspecies of European bison Bison bonanus montanus Rautian, Kalabushkin et Nemtsev, 2000 and included in the Red Data Book of Republic Adygea (part of the Russian Federation) and protected as a species in the reserve."

Other scientists do not agree that these animals have adapted to highland conditions like the Caucasian subspecies. The reason for this opinion is that the hybrids of North American and European bison constantly migrate from the Caucasian Reserve down to the piedmont. The hybrids also periodically perish on a mass scale during severe winters.  

These scientists also claim that these hybrids modify the Caucasian environment intensively, causing the transformation of forest ecosystems to meadow ecosystems on wintering grounds and the disappearance of a number of herbaceous plant species depression of thickets of wild fruit-trees and young growth of the Nordmann fir and other woody plants. This brings about irreversible changes to the Caucasian Reserve’s ecosystems.  

The presence of hybrids in the Caucasian Bioshere Reserve and the Nalchik Forestry Game Management unit, and their fast dispersal is hazardous to the genetic purity and the very existence of the populations of pureblood Lowland-Caucasian European bison. Therefore, these scientists recommend the complete elimination of the hybrids from the Caucasian region. Pureblood European bison of the Lowland-Caucasian genetic line should replace the hybrids.
Museum Specimens Skulls of the Caucasian bison are preserved in museum collections. Do you know where specimens can be found, please contact this website.
Relatives The closest living relatives of the Caucasian bison are its direct descendents, the European bison Bison bonasus from the Lowland-Caucasian Breeding line. Another very close relative is the only surviving pure subspecies of the European bison, namely the Lowland bison, Bison bonasus bonasus. The American bison Bison bison is another living close relative. The European-American bison hybrids living in the Caucasian mountains also contain genes from one Caucasian bison bull. These hybrids are recently described as a different 'subspecies', the Highland bison Bison bonasus montanus.

Caucasian bison (as viewed from 1910) - Trevor Dykes' Kosmos Translations Archive

Extinction: Caucasus Bison UWSP GEOG358 [Heywood]

Do you know more links? Please contact this website.

Articles & Reports

Day, D., 1981, The Doomsday Book of Animals, Ebury Press, London. ISBN 0 85223 183 0.

Puzek, Z., et al., 2002, European Bison Bison bonasus: Current state of the species and an action plan for its conservation. Mammal Research Institute, Polish Academy of Sciences, Bialowieza.

Rautian G.S., Kalabushkin B.A., Nemtsev A.S. 2000. A new subspecies of the European bison, Bison bonasus montanus ssp. nov. (Bovidae, Artiodactyla). Doklady Biological Sciences. 375, 4: 563-567.  

Regensberg, F. 1910. Der Wisent in Kaukasus. Kosmos Handweiser für Naturkunde. Number 10, pages 383-385. Translated in 2006 by Trevor Dykes into English: Caucasian bison (as viewed from 1910).

Zablotskaya, Lidia V., Mikhail A. Zablotsky and Marina M. Zablotskaya, Origin of the hybrids of North American and European bison in the Caucasus Mountains. (Text presented in Russian at 2nd Conference of Bison Specialist Group, SSC/IUCN in Sochi, on 26–30 September 1988, and translated into English in 1990, but never published.)

Last updated: 11th April 2010.

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