Weight of female (lower) and male (upper) bison at Konza Prairie and Ordway with age.
The performance of bison—how much weight they gain, how many calves are produced—is the ultimate expression of the functioning of North American grasslands. If we can compare the performance of bison in different grasslands, we have a window in the functioning of the grassland. Interannual patterns of weight gain show responses to climate variation. Average weights of animals give general indices to the provision of the quantity and quality of grass produced. Yet, no one has ever compared the performance of bison across grasslands in North America.
We're getting pretty close to doing that. For any one site, we can fit a growth curve to the weights of animals as they age. There are a number of growth curves that are used for these purposes, but a good one is a generalized Michaelis-Menten equation:
where W0 is the birth weight, Wf is the asymptotic weight, K is the age at which animals are half their asymptotic weight, c is a constant describing the shape of the curve, and t is time in years.
If you fit the weights of bison with age with this equation, for each herd you can extract essentially how heavy cows and bulls get, as well as a rate of maturity...or half-maturity as K would represent.
Right now, we have data on weight gain for about six bison herds. There are about 10 herds in the US that have weight data from roundups.
So far, we see a few basic things about bison. On average, males level off at about 75% greater weights than females (855 vs. 484 kg). It also takes them about 1.5 y longer to reach half their maximal weight.
We also see that some bison herds are heavier than others. For example, mature bison in Ordway Prairie in South Dakota are 50-100 kg heavier than mature bison from Konza. That's a lot of bison. Is it a fluke? Unlikely. Over 90% of Ordway adult cows produce calves. At Konza, it's only about 60%.
There must be a big difference in the grass between Konza and Ordway. Because their bison growth curves are quite different.