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Studies to date have shown that bison embryo development in vitro is compromised with few embryos developing to the blastocyst stage. The aim of this study was to use bison–cattle hybrid embryos, an interspecific cross that is known to result in live offspring in vivo, as a model for assessing species-specific differences in embryo development in vitro. Cattle oocytes fertilized with cattle, plains bison and wood bison sperm were assessed for various developmental parameters associated with embryo quality, including cell number, apoptosis and ATP content. Decreased development to the blastocyst stage was observed in hybrid wood bison embryos compared with the other treatment groups. Although both wood bison and plains bison hybrid blastocysts had significantly lower cell numbers than cattle blastocysts, only wood bison hybrid blastocysts had a greater incidence of apoptosis than cattle blastocysts. Among the treatment groups, ATP levels and expression profiles of NRF1, TFAM, MT-CYB, BAX and BCL2 were not significantly different in both 8- to 16-cell stage and blastocyst stage embryos. These data provide evidence of decreased developmental competence in the wood bison hybrid embryos, owing to inadequate culture conditions that have increased apoptotic events.