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Are Bison and Buffalo the Same?

Are Bison and Buffalo the Same?

Here’s a true-or-false quiz: Yellowstone National Park has thousands of freely roaming buffalo. 

If you said “false” or thought this was a trick question, we’ll give you points for being a smarty pants. If your answer was “true,” keep reading to learn about a significant case of mistaken identity in the animal kingdom.

Are those massive mammals buffalo, or are they bison? Let’s find out!

Bison vs. Buffalo: What's the Difference?

Is There a Difference Between Bison And Buffalo?

Visitors to Yellowstone are fascinated with these giant, furry creatures, and confused. Rangers often get questions about the American bison that inhabit the park. They have to grin and bear that many people wrongly refer to them as buffalo.

It’s a common misconception, but they are different animals. Both are in the same biological family, which in Latin is called Bovidae. The bison and the buffalo are bovine cousins; beefier, bulkier relatives of the common cow. The ox is kin, and so are sheep, goats, and antelope.

We’ll look at the details as we delve into the bison-buffalo conundrum. There are some similarities between these species and many differences.

All About the Bison

The American bison is the largest land mammal in North America. There were tens of millions in number, mainly across the Great Plains. Hunting and mass slaughter nearly wiped them out by the late 1800s, but they’ve made a strong recovery.

American buffalo in meadow.
You can spot American bison in many U.S. national parks.

Where in the World

The protected herd at Yellowstone numbers about 5,450 at last count. The Smithsonian Institute says there are 300,000 in conservation herds, and another half a million raised as livestock.

According to the Smithsonian, bison occupy just a tiny fraction of the territory they once covered. The areas include parts of Canada and the states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, and Utah.

A similar species, the European bison, can be found in several countries in Europe. They include Germany, Lithuania, Poland, and Switzerland.

Pro Tip: Want your best chance at spotting a bison in the wild? We uncovered The Best National Parks to See American Bison.

Habitat

Like all animals, bison live where the food supply is abundant. For them, this means grassy areas like plains, prairies, and river valleys.

Physical Attributes

The bison is easily recognizable with its big head and shoulder hump. It also has shaggy brown fur, a mane and beard, and relatively short, black horns. It has a long tail with a tuft of hair.

LArge buffalo resting by water.
Known for their large size, American buffalo are easy to spot when exploring the U.S. plains.

Size

The male bison stands up to 6’ tall and weighs up to 2,500 lbs. Females are shorter, 4’ to 5’ tall, and weigh about half as much.  Bison start big, too; newborn calves weigh 30 to 70 lbs.

Diet

Bison are big-time grazers. They typically eat grasses, weeds, and leafy plants. They can graze for up to 11 hours a day.

All About the Buffalo

An actual buffalo, rather than a bison, are not native to the Americas. There are a few kinds, including the water buffalo and the African buffalo. You may have heard of the Cape buffalo, a subspecies of the African buffalo.

Where in the World

African buffalo, naturally, are native to the continent of Africa, and wild water buffalo are from South Asia. Domesticated water buffalo live in many different areas, including Europe, Australia, the Americas, and Africa.

Habitat

Buffalo prefer wetter living conditions than bison. Water buffalo live in wetland areas and love to wallow in the mud. The African buffalo’s favored habitat includes grasslands, but they also like areas with cover, such as lowland rainforests and coastal savannas.

Water buffalo eating a plant.
Buffalo are smaller than bison with a more curved horn style.

Physical Attributes

Compared to bison, buffalo have smaller heads concerning their bodies and much larger, more dramatically curved horns. They don’t have humps or beards.

While bison are dark brown, water buffalo are typically gray to black and have light-colored “socks” on their lower legs. They also have white v-shaped markings on their necks. African buffalo are dark brown to black, and older males have white circles around their eyes.

Size

Water buffalo are the heaviest of these animals, with some weighing as much as 2,700 lbs. African buffalo are hefty, ranging from around 1,300 to 2,000 lbs. They typically stand 4’ to 5’ high.

Diet

Like bison, buffalos eat grasses primarily but will ingest woody plants when they need to. Water buffalo are also herbivores, but their diet is varied to include certain aquatic plants.

Herd of buffalo.
While you can find plenty of bison in the U.S.A., buffalo aren’t actually local animals.

Why Are These Two Animals Confused With Each Other?

No one has a clear-cut explanation for why bison are called buffalo in America, but a few theories exist. One is that European explorers mistook the beasts for buffalo, and the name stuck.

That may not make complete sense, however, when you consider that there were also bison in Europe. Another explanation is that the word buffalo is a variation of the French word boeuf, which means beef.

Pro Tip: Search for bison in Yellowstone with these tips on How to See Amazing Yellowstone Wildlife Year-Round.

Visiting Yellowstone National Park - East Side Attractions | MOTM VLOG #58

Don’t Call It a Buffalo

However it happened, it’s not correct. Bison and buffalo are different animals, so it’s best to get it right! We’re halfway kidding because we know the horse is way out of the barn on this one.

Sticklers for accuracy should stick with bison over buffalo because it’s the proper scientific name for the species found in America. But because it’s been used for so long, buffalo rolls off the tongue more easily. For instance, we can’t imagine singing, “Give me a home, where the bison roam.”

Realistically, though, the term buffalo has been misused for so long that it’s probably here to stay. Hopefully, so are these magnificent animals, which were once nearly a thing of the past.

Have you seen bison or buffalo before? Tell us your experience in the comments!

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Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
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Frederick

Saturday 30th of April 2022

My most notable Buffalo story took place in the Philippines. One night, while returning from Subic Naval Base to Clark Air Base, I drove up behind a Jeepney. It was in the country and dark. I could tell that there was a light on in the inside of the Jeepney and eventually could see men in the front seat, however the back area of the Jeepney was very dark. Eventually we drove into a town and there were some streetlights. After much curious looking, I could see a Water Buffalo riding in the back of the Jeepney. His hind feet were on the back step of the Jeepney and a rope across his rump kept him from backing out. He appeared to be taking the journey very calmly.

Ida Smirk

Friday 29th of April 2022

So then was it Bison Bill Cody?

Mortons on the Move

Monday 2nd of May 2022

Good question! :)

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