Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

A Primatologist’s Bison-Flow Morning

September 9, 2011

Labor Day 2011, I’ll never forget. That morning in Wyoming, from where I’ve just returned, all the unruly variables of wildlife observing lined up and offered me an unforgettable bison-watching experience. I’m still on a high from it.

It was our third visit to Yellowstone National Park in six years, visits made in part because I’ve fallen for bison in a big way. As I’ve written before, I can’t even explain it—I just find that bison, particularly the genetically unique and free-roaming Yellowstone sort, have lodged in my heart in the same way that monkeys and apes did (and do).

Charlie, my husband, and I had, before Labor Day, already spent some time watching the herds in Hayden and Lamar Valleys, regular buffalo hang-outs. We’d also been zinged by good fortune in general on this visit, seeing elk, a cliff-high mountain goat, hunting coyotes, and a gorgeous black/gray wolf through a spotting scope. The scope, freely shared by one of the wildlife observers who dot the Park’s overlooks, helped immensely because so much of the wildlife-viewing in Yellowstone occurs at a necessary remove.

That’s good for the animals, of course. Foolish tourists who rush toward wild creatures, cameras extended and good-sense submerged, are hazards to the other species as well as to themselves. With bison, many of my fondest encounters have come as I sit in steel and glass—that is, inside a vehicle. These powerful animals, part of humans’ evolutionary journey since prehistoric days, feel no hesitation at plodding alongside, or full-stop blocking, cars that parallel or interrupt their travel routes. It’s a fleeting but welcome sense of connection at those times, when I roll down the window and inhale sights and smells of bison.

But oh Labor Day! We’d found no buffalo on the morning’s drive until Charlie turned our car down a side road near Lamar Valley’s Slough Creek. There, we were delighted to find a small group in the middle distance, graced by a coyote mid-herd. And then off a ways, a thrilling sight-- a herd of well over 100. The animals were grazing and socializing right near the road. We parked close by, in an area indicated by a passing park ranger. And that’s when everything came together—I could get out of the car and safely watch and listen, notebook and camera deployed, with no windshield barrier, and not pressing in too closely upon the buffalo themselves.

For some time now, I’ve wanted to see-- indistinctly or imperfectly to be sure, due to my lack of knowledge—individual bison as individuals. And now along came a chance as bright as the high-altitude Yellowstone sun. I began to focal-sample one huge bull. That is, I adopted the method commonly used in primate studies, and concentrated on the social behavior of this single animal, ignoring temporarily all other behaviors in the group.

I named this male Glisten, because at one point his nose glistened in the sun—right after he pushed it into the pee stream of a female whose rump area he had been investigating with sensory enthusiasm. How familiar was the action that followed! Out stretched Glisten’s neck. He was using his Jacobson’s organ in a way not dissimilar from what my cats do (this patch of sensitive tissue, also called the vomeronasal organ, is located on the roof of the mouth and used to capture sensory information from the world). I watched as Glisten repeatedly sniffed females and held out his neck in that specific way.

At one point, Glisten pawed the ground and bellowed. He moved forward into a cluster of bison, including other males. Now the constant low grunts made by foraging bison were punctuated by deep rumbles and bellows. I know that I could intuit only a fraction of what was going on, since I knew nothing of the animals’ histories with each other.

Slowly, as this special hour unfolded, Glisten took on a distinct nature to me. As I scribbled notes and snapped photographs, I realized that the bison were moving our way—most though not all of them, amoeba-like in disorganized channels. Closer and closer to our patch of ground they came, an enormous honor in my book!

We two humans were still, and the buffalo also were now calm—though we made sure to inch towards our car doors in case the tenor of the encounter changed. We never wanted to stress the animals or break common-sense rules of close wildlife encounters. In this case, though, the bison made their choice in the matter. And so it was a flow moment, in a dual sense—the big beasts flowed close to us, and I felt in the flow of truly superb connection with creatures I love.

Of course, a bit of bison-sampling doesn’t science make. When I mentor students in their first forays into monkey- or ape-watching, I tell them that their first hours of data should be pitched into the trash if they wished to attempt a formal analysis or publication (just as I did with my initial hours of baboon data in Kenya). My Yellowstone observations were assuredly those of a bison novice, and to be thought unreliable.

But the notes I took were for me alone, and how much I learned! I missed the bison as soon as they moved off to areas we couldn’t follow—and as I lost Glisten in the herd. (Unpracticed as I was, I could not yet distinguish him by horn or nose shape, coat markings, or other physical markers).

As I told Charlie then, I could see myself in another life as a bisonologist. Or perhaps in this-life retirement? One can dream…. Meanwhile, I post a photograph (above) of Glisten.


  1. September 9, 2011 10:04 AM EDT
    I enjoyed this very much! It reminded me of camping and hiking about 10 years ago in the Henry Mountains in South Central Utah -- a relatively high range in the middle of the desert with a substantial, sort-of island population of bison. I was with my brother and his wife when we watched a herd of over 50 move quickly over a pass at over 11,000 feet. I sight I hope I will never forget. Ever since, I've carried a bit of bison hair I found on some brush that day. Now wishing I had seen the trees as well as the forest.
    - Nigel
  2. September 9, 2011 10:05 AM EDT
    What a great entry--and a wonderful experience.
    - Colleen
  3. September 9, 2011 12:00 PM EDT
    Thank you, Colleen! Nigel, what a great sight that must have been. I was trained, as a graduate student, to see the forest and not the trees, in fact the trees, individual monkeys in that case, were more or less considered noise in the statistical system. It's been a long slow evolution for me, primed by the work of Goodall, Smuts, Bekoff, de Waal and others, a body of work to which I hope I am now contributing in regards to non-primates as well as primates. One other dream I have is to tour all the free-ranging bison areas in the US- Utah, the Dakotas, etc....
    - Barbara J. King
  4. September 9, 2011 2:48 PM EDT
    Great post! Glad you had a fulfilling experience with an animal you love! Glisten is a beauty! Must have been really cool to be so close and in the center of so many of these wonderful animals. We only have three now in the park, most often they are too far for an individual connection, but sometimes just driving by you get lucky and they are near the fence. I have never researched them but they seem to be of a very clam nature. Please post more of you photos.
    - Kim Forwood
  5. September 9, 2011 3:19 PM EDT
    Kim thanks for commenting here. I'd like to see the SF bison too. Grrr, on the photos, we tried endlessly to put up a small gallery of distinct bison individuals. Somehow the site is set to take only one photo per post! I will organize some kind of album and put it up at Facebook tomorrow.
    - Barbara J. King
  6. September 9, 2011 10:46 PM EDT
    Glad to hear your travels with Charlie did not have the same result in Yellowstone that Steinbeck's did. Nice post
    - Iain Davidson
  7. September 10, 2011 12:12 AM EDT
    what can I say? No comment really except that I just totally basked in the experience as I read the blog. I have been having buffalo days myself the last few days, as you know...
    - Joanne Tanner
  8. September 10, 2011 8:57 AM EDT
    Iain, agreed. Joanne, your word 'basking' makes me happy. A note for others: Joanne and I have been discussing (among other things) the book BUFFALO IN THE HOUSE by R.D. Rosen, which we both enjoyed and recommend.
    - Barbara J. King
  9. September 11, 2011 7:35 AM EDT
    Much beloved professor: only you would focal sample while on vacation! Beautiful imagery of the bison - I may switch dissertation topics yet.
    - BF
  10. September 11, 2011 8:47 AM EDT
    BFal, you have made me laugh! We must catch up on email!
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.