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Bison vs. Buffalo—What's the Difference?

Melanie has a BS in physical science and is in grad school for analytics and modeling. Her research is in computational chemistry.

What's the Difference Between Bison and Buffalo?

When you refer to a buffalo, you might give a different mental image based on who you're talking to. Most Americans still use the term to refer to bison, but bison and buffalo are technically classified as two different families.

The confusion is furthered by the city of Buffalo, New York, which was actually named for the American Bison. Oops! In fact, New Buffalo, Michigan, is home to the team the New Buffalo Bison.

An easy way to make the distinction is that bison roam Europe and the Americas, and buffalo are native to Africa and Asia. As long as you keep the differences between bison and buffalo in mind, you can cut down on the confusion and recognize a real buffalo when you see one.

difference-between-bison-and-buffalo

In the United States, the terms 'bison' and 'buffalo' are often used interchangeably, but are bison and buffalo really the same animal? The quick answer: No, they're not. While both bison and buffalo are the Bovidae family, the Bovinae subfamily, and the Bovini tribe, they are distinctly different animals.

As the story goes, early French explorers in North America were among the first Europeans to come across this large land mammal. These explorers referred to animals they saw roaming the American plains as les beoufs from the French word for oxen. Les beoufs was then Anglicized into the word we hear today, "buffalo."

What you may not know is that bison and buffalo are actually distinct species from different parts of the world. How can you tell the difference? Here's a quick rundown!

What Are Bison?

Bison are native to both Europe (where they are referred to as wisent) and North America (the American bison.) The American bison were once abundant throughout Mexico, the United States, and Canada. These herbivores usually feed on the grasses in the plains as well as shrubs and twigs.

With the recent increasing demand for bison meat (and other products made from bison) combined with conservation efforts, the bison is rebounding and can be found on farms and national parks throughout North America.

American Bison roaming through Custer National Park in South Dakota

American Bison roaming through Custer National Park in South Dakota

Types of Bison

The American Bison

The American bison is sometimes referred to as the American buffalo which is where some of the confusion lies on whether this iconic animal is a bison or a buffalo.

These animals once roamed a range that stretched from Alaska into parts of Canada and across the entire United States to the Gulf of Mexico. There are two subspecies of American Bison: The Plains Bison, which is ubiquitous in western American history, and the lesser-known Woods Bison.

Bison are still a subject in Native American art such as in this blanket by Washington-based artist Sue Coccia.

Bison are still a subject in Native American art such as in this blanket by Washington-based artist Sue Coccia.

The Plains Bison

Plains Bison are the largest land mammal found within North America. Any time you see movies of the Wild West with thundering herds of these herbivores, these are usually the iconic Plains Bison.

Bison had a cultural significance to Native Americans. They provided the native people with food, clothing, shelter, and a subject for artwork. Bison lived in large herds and once numbered in the millions. As European settlers moved westward, bison were hunted to the cusp of extinction for the purpose of depriving Native Americans of a primary food source.

The wisent (European bison)

The wisent (European bison)

The Woods Bison

Woods Bison typically have a thick, shaggy, brown winter coat that is shed to form a less dense summer coat. They can be up to 6 feet tall, 10 feet long, and weigh up to one ton.

Woods Bison have short, stocky legs and short curved horns. They may look like big and clumsy animals, but they can actually move quickly (they can run up to 40 miles per house) when they feel threatened. Remember that these animals are related to domesticated cows and may react like the bulls you see in bullfights if you get close to them!

The Woods Bison's original range included much of northern Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Alaska.

The Wisent (or Białowieża)

Wisent, also known as European bison, were hunted to near extinction, with all wild wisent being wiped out. A small number of lowland European bison remained in captivity and were reintroduced to the wild.

As wisent have no natural predators aside from humans, they have begun to flourish in more heavily forested regions. A population of forest-dwelling wisent is particularly noted in the primeval Białowieża Forest in eastern Poland bordering along Belarus earning these wisent the name Białowieża.

How Many bison Are Left?

There were once over 25 million bison across the North American Great Plains. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, there are only 325 bison remaining in the wild today.

Extinct Bison Species

There are nine extinct species of bison, most of which went extinct during the Quaternary extinction event. These species are as follows:

  • B. antiquus
  • B. georgicus
  • B. hanaizumiensis
  • B. latifrons
  • B. occidentalis
  • B. palaeosinensis
  • B. priscus
  • B. schoetensacki
Plowing rice fields with water buffalo in Indonesia

Plowing rice fields with water buffalo in Indonesia

What Are Buffaloes?

Buffalo can be separated into two main species, the domesticated Asian Water Buffalo and the Cape Buffalo which are native to Africa.

The range of the water buffaloes spreads across Asia, as well as parts of North Africa and Southern Europe whereas the cape buffalo is found primarily on the plains of Africa. A buffalo's horns are longer than the bison.

Some buffalo have been observed using their giant horns to toss mud on their backs, possibly to protect against insects and heat. Buffaloes have a short glossy coat and are about the same size as bison. These animals have been domesticated for over 5,000 years and have historically been an important source of dairy products. Buffaloes have also been widely used in farm labor.

Water buffalo in Cambodia

Water buffalo in Cambodia

Types of Buffaloes

Cape Buffalo

The Cape Buffalo, also called the African Buffalo, is the only member of the cattle tribe that is native to Africa. As the name suggests, this animal is found in Southern Africa (by the cape.) However, the Cape Buffalo can also found in East Africa.

Although considered a bovine, this buffalo is distantly related to other large cattle. Despite being the smallest in its family, the Cape Buffalo features an unpredictable temperament and has never successfully been domesticated.

Water Buffalo

The Water Buffalo is native to the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and parts of China. Unlike its cousin, the Cape Buffalo, the Water Buffalo has been heavily domesticated.

Sources

  • Ley, Willy (December 1964). "The Rarest Animals". For Your Information. Galaxy Science Fiction. pp. 94–103.
  • "Bison return to Germany after 300-year absence". Mongabay.com
  • "Wood Bison". U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service ECOS Environmental Conservation Online System.
  • "American Bison". nps.gov
  • "Asian water buffalo: domestication, history and genetics". Animal Genetics.

© 2012 Melanie

Comments

Katee Shew from Canada on November 01, 2012:

Very interesting. I had always wondered about the differences, so I was very happy to find this article. Thanks for explaining it!

William Young from Eaglle Grove, Iowa on September 22, 2012:

Very well written hub! I didn't realize there was a difference between Bison and Buffalo (or Titonka as the Sioux Indians call them, I believe). I always thought they were one in the same. We learn something new everyday, thanks for the great information!

Barbara Radisavljevic from Templeton, CA on September 21, 2012:

I didn't know there was a difference, either. Thanks for enlightening me.

Faith Reaper from southern USA on September 20, 2012:

I've always wondered about the difference, and when I take my granddaughters to the zoo, I will know now. We do not have such a lovely animal reserve here where they can roam. Your photos are amazing of these lovely creatures God has created indeed! Voted Up In His Love, Faith Reaper

diogenes from UK and Mexico on September 20, 2012:

Well described. Both can be dangerous. Bison have stood-off grizzlies and wolf packs and Hemingway said the African Water buffalo was worse than a lion. They even seriously wound lions.

The are, indeed, more like the Iberian Fighting Bull in character.

Bob

Margaret Perrottet from San Antonio, FL on September 20, 2012:

I've seen plenty of bison in the U.S., and have referred to them as bison or buffalo - I didn't know there was a difference. Thanks for these interesting facts. Good hub - voted up and interesting!