Can Bison Swim? (When and Where They Might Do It)

Bison are famous for migrating across the plains in search of food, but walking these vast distances requires them to pass through many obstacles, including water. Crossing water like rivers and lakes is a challenge for many animals, but bison are some of the continent’s strongest animals, and they find a way to get across.

But how do bison manage to cross the river? Do they try and swim across, or do they have some other tricks up their sleeve? 

Join us in Floofmania as we explore how our friends, the bison, swim and cross bodies of water.

Are Bison Good Swimmers?

Although bison might appear large and clumsy, they are surprisingly agile. A full-grown bison can run, jump, and, yes, swim. These great beasts are naturally buoyant, which allows them to float in water.

Bison are excellent swimmers who can traverse most bodies of water, from rivers to lakes. Some bison can even cross rivers a mile wide and overcome conditions that would sweep aside smaller animals, such as rapids and strong currents. 

Depending on how deep the water is, they can simply wade across, though that is still an impressive feat as they are able to prevent the currents from sweeping them aside.

Can Bison Calves Swim?

While adult bison can swim just fine, calves will have a harder time staying afloat in the water. Young bison can swim just like fully grown bison, as they can cross rivers and other bodies of water with the rest of the herd. However, yearlings and calves tend to have a higher mortality rate than adults in swimming.

For one, young bison are not as physically developed, which makes them more susceptible to hazards such as strong currents. They also are not as big, which makes it challenging to stay afloat, and in some cases, young bison can only swim with their nose above water as opposed to the entire head for adults.

Aside from their size, young bison also lack stamina which is crucial for crossings since they cannot afford to stop. If calves stop during a crossing, the current might sweep them aside.

How Do Bison Swim?

Bison are excellent swimmers thanks to their build and natural abilities. Their thick coats of fur enable bison to keep warm in cold waters that might be too frigid for humans and other animals to stay in.

The bison’s size and bulk also play a role since it gives them more stability since the water can’t wash them away as quickly. 

Being buoyant means bison can float naturally, allowing their heads, humps, and tails to remain above the water while swimming. This ability means bison will not sink due to their size. Aside from just floating, bison can propel themselves forward using their powerful legs.

Bison can be pretty agile and pivot directions with their hind legs, allowing them to adjust their course in the water. 

Can Bison Dive and Swim Underwater?

Although many large mammals like hippos, water buffaloes, and moose can submerge themselves underwater, this isn’t an ability that bison share. Since bison naturally float, it is difficult for them to go underwater, to begin with.

Even if they could submerge themselves, staying underwater would present problems. No research suggests bison can hold their breath for long periods, and they definitely can’t breathe underwater like a fish, so going underwater would be pointless.

Lastly, there isn’t much reason for them to go underwater anyway. Hippos and water buffaloes usually submerge to cool off from high temperatures. While bison don’t like the heat either, the climate in the US is milder compared to Africa and Asia, so most bison can cool off just by swimming, which makes needing to dive underwater or completely submerging pointless.

Moose, meanwhile, dive underwater in search of food such as plant life, something bison do not need since they mostly eat grass.

Swimming underwater would also not be much of a help for bison swimming. Hippos need to submerge to use the river bed to propel themselves, while bison can swim naturally.

Why Do Bison Swim?

Bison can have several reasons to dip in the water, but many misconceptions exist. Bison are often mistaken for buffalo which have a completely different relationship with water.

Bison Cross Water to Find Food

One of the primary motivators for bison is the search for food and lands to graze, but that can mean having to cross rivers to reach them.

During the migration season, there are many streams and rivers along the great plains that bison will encounter. Bison will often ford these bodies of water to reach the fresh fields on the other side. 

These situations do not even need to occur during migration. Researchers in Canada have noticed that some bison cross lakes in their reserves to reach islands full of vegetation. 

Do Bison Use Water To Wash Themselves?

Bison are more intelligent animals than we give them credit for, and one sign of that intelligence is their ability to wash and groom themselves. However, bison do not wash themselves the same way humans do. 

Contrary to popular belief, bison do not swim in the water to groom themselves; that is what water buffaloes do, not bison. Instead, bison perform what is known as a ‘dust bath’ or “wallowing” to clean themselves.

Dust baths involve the bison rolling around in the ground in mud puddles or dirt. Our giant friends do this as a way to groom and wash. While it might seem counterproductive for us, for bison, mud is beneficial in several ways.

  • Preventing insect bites.
  • Shedding their winter coats.
  • Relieving skin irritation.

The soil can help alleviate bug bites and prevent parasites like ticks and lice from spreading. The dirt creates a barrier preventing the insects from biting or stinging them. Normal river water cannot help with this as it won’t provide adequate protection. Instead, bison need muddy water which can cling to them.

These dust baths also help bison shed their winter coats as the dirt washes off the excess fur.

Will Bison Go In The Water To Cool Down?

Another big difference between bison and water buffaloes is how they deal with hot climates. Water buffaloes prefer to head into the water for a swim and may even submerge themselves to cool off. While bison also have problems with the heat, they prefer to deal with it on dry land.

While bison might go for a drink or swim down by the river, staying in water isn’t their primary method of dealing with heat. Bison instead use a tactic similar to their dirt baths.

They will lay down and roll around on the soil, rubbing the mud all over themselves. Mud can be surprisingly cool and helps regulate the bison’s temperature, preventing them from overheating. 

Would Bison Swim Over A River or Walk?

Although excellent swimmers, bison are land animals first and foremost. The bison’s relationship with water is based on pure necessity. While bison prefer to make their homes in river valleys and other places close to fresh water, that is, only to have fresh drinking water.

They will approach the water if they need to drink or get across, but if they don’t need to get in the water, they won’t. Bison spend much more time grazing and looking for food instead of swimming in the water. If the choice were up to them, more often than not, they would rather stay on land.

Author: Quade Ong

Hello there, my name is Quade. I have been a writer for three years but an animal lover for over two decades. I grew up in one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, which has given me the blessing of seeing all sorts of beautiful animals. Now I strive to learn not just about the animals I am from, but those all over the world!

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