Is that giant, black, scary-looking beast a bison or buffalo? The two animals are indeed quite different, but the bison vs buffalo debate is complicated somewhat by American bison commonly being referred to as buffalo.
This confusion is generally blamed on the early European settlers of America’s Great Plains, who saw vast herds of large, hoofed animals and called them buffalo, due to their superficial similarity to African and Asian buffalo. In fact, although both bison and buffalo are in the Bovidae family, and are both large, horned, oxlike animals they are not closely related.
Before we dive into the differences between bison and buffalo, it’s worth knowing that there are actually three species of bison, and three species of buffalo:
- The American bison (Bison bison) is near threatened, but with a stable population roaming parts of North America.
- The wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) (also known as the mountain bison) is a distinct northern subspecies of the American bison native to Alaska and Canada.
- European bison (Bison bonasus) (also known as the European wood bison, wisent, and zubr), found predominantly in Poland, but with reintroduction programs in many European countries.
- The African buffalo (Syncerus caffer), (also known as the Cape buffalo) found across sub-Saharan Africa, and member of ‘the big five’.
- The Asian water buffalo (Bubalus arnee) (also known as an Asian buffalo, Asiatic buffalo, and wild Asian buffalo), native to the Indian subcontinent, and listed as an endangered species.
- The domestic water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) (also known as the water buffalo and Asian water buffalo), smaller than its wild cousin, and found across India, China and Southeast Asia.
Bison vs buffalo range & habitat
This one is pretty simple.
Contrary to the unofficial anthem of the American west Home on the Range, buffalo do not roam in America. True buffalo are only found in Africa (African buffalo) and Asia (Asian water buffalo and domestic water buffalo), whilst bison are only found in North America (American bison and wood bison) and Europe (European bison).
Bison once ranged grasslands and prairies from Alaska to northern Mexico, primarily in the grasslands and prairies of North America. Today, there are only fragmented bison herds with limited distribution of around just 1% of their former range. Whereas bison numbers in the 1800s are estimated at 30 to 100 million, there are now just 30,000 in conservation herds, with another 500,000 managed commercially as livestock.
European buffalo have a similar story to bison in that they were hunted to near extinction (over millennia though, not decades), and were virtually extinct by 1920. A breeding program in Poland from the 1950s has led to a semi-wild population living in Białowieża Forest, and in recent years many European countries have joined a rewilding project to bring Europe’s largest land mammal back to national parks in Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania.
Now we know the basics of the names and species, let’s look at the four distinct differences between bison and buffalo to help you easily distinguish between these giant grass-eaters on sight.
Physical differences between bison and buffalo
Head and shoulders
From a distance, it’s quite easy to tell a bison from a buffalo as their body shapes are very different.
Bison have a large hump of muscle on their shoulders, along with an oversized head that makes them look very front heavy. The hump lets the bison’s head function as a snowplow, moving aside snowdrifts in the winter.
Buffalo have no hump, and smaller heads and shoulders in proportion to the rest of their bodies. This gives them a more symmetrical look.
The horns have it
Another easy way to tell a buffalo from a bison at a distance is to look at the size and shape of the horns.
Both sexes and all species of buffalo have large horns. African buffalo have wide horns that can grow up to a meter across in the shape of a handlebar mustache – starting at a thick, helmet-like base and curl down, then back up. Water buffalo have longer, crescent-shaped horns that can grow up to 2 meters long.
On the other hand, bison horns are typically sharper and shorter than buffalo horns, growing to reach 0.5 meters on average.
Beard or clean-shaven?
Sometimes referred to as the plains hipsters, bison have a longish, unkempt beard under their chin. Buffalo lack a beard of any type.
Shaggy or smooth?
Bison have a dense two-layered coat which allows them to survive the extreme temperatures of the Great Plains. They grow a thick, shaggy coat for the winter, and their inner coat is shed annually each spring.
Buffalo have relatively smooth and sleek thin coats that they don’t shed. Because of their range in Africa and southern Asia, they are exposed to a far narrower range of temperatures, so don’t need to grow a thick bison-like coat.
Length & weight
If you’re looking at a large bovine and the above points haven’t helped you identify whether it’s a bison or buffalo, try getting out the measuring tape.
The American bison is slightly larger than a buffalo. Bison typically measure 3.8 meters long and weigh up to 1,000 kilograms, whereas the Cape buffalo (the largest of the 3 buffalo species) reaches lengths of 3.4 meters and weights of around 9o0 kilograms.
The heaviest of all bison and buffalo species is actually the water buffalo. Although it grows to only 2.7 meters long it can weigh up to a whopping 1,200 kilograms!
And that’s all for this round-up of bison vs buffalo. What do you think – any differences between these two large mammals surprise you? Or any differences we should add to this post? Please join in and let us know in the comments section below!