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Buffalo Vs. Bison (6 Differences)

People often use the common names buffalo and bison interchangeably without even realizing that buffalo and bison are in fact two totally different animals. It makes sense why this happens, as they share many similarities! So in this article, we will be diving into the differences between these two large, cow-like creatures.

Article highlights

  • Bison and buffalo are two distinct mammals from the Family Bovidae
  • There are only 2 species of bison, and as many as 10 species of buffalo
  • Bison are much larger and heavier than buffalo

How Buffaloes and bison are Related

Buffaloes and bison fall into the taxonomic family Bovidae, making them bovines. If this term is familiar to you, it is probably because cows are also bovines and within the same family. This means that cows, buffaloes and bison are all related to one another.

Bovines are classified as being medium to medium-large mammals with hoofed feet. They are herbivorous, meaning they only eat plant matter.

Buffaloes and bison tend to be social and travel in large groups or herds. They also have horns, however in some bovines it might only be the males with horns present.

Buffalo vs. Bison: key differences

There are several key differences between buffaloes and bison ranging from physical characteristics, distributions, and ecological traits.

1. Number of species

White buffalo at the ranch
White buffalo at the ranch | image by Jan Mosimann via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

When it comes to buffaloes and bison, there are more species of buffaloes than bison. There are only two living species of bison while there are six species of buffalo, plus some additional subspecies that are now considered species on their own. So the true number of buffalo species somewhat uncertain at this time. In general though, buffaloes are more widespread bison.

2. Distribution

European Bison
European Bison by Lubos Houska from Pixabay

One of the major differences between buffaloes and bison is where they can be found in the world. As mentioned earlier, there are only two species of bison.

One of which can be found in Europe (the European bison) and the other, the American bison, which is only found in North America. To keep things simple, we will be focusing on the American bison from here on out!

Buffaloes on the other hand are found in parts of Africa, Asia, and Southeast Asia. Perhaps the species of buffalo that most people are familiar with is the African Water buffalo, which we will focus on in an effort to limit confusion.

3. Size

Bison | Image by WikiImages from Pixabay

Generally, bison are larger than buffaloes. At shoulder height, bison can be between six to six and a half feet tall. Buffaloes tend to only grow as tall as five and a half feet tall (at shoulder height).

Unsurprisingly, bison also grow to be much heavier than buffaloes, weighing anywhere between 700 and 3,000 pounds. Buffaloes, while still heavy, tend to range between 900 and 2,000 pounds.

4. Horns

Bison in grassland
Bison in grassland | image by Grand Teton via Flickr

Both bison and buffaloes are equipped with horn, but these horns are not created equal! Bison have smaller horns than buffaloes that grow to be up to two feet.

Bison horns also curve upwards. Buffaloes also have horns that curve upwards, but they tend to stick outwards and away from their head before curving towards the end. These horns can be over three feet long.

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5. Coat

Considering they live in different climates, buffaloes and bison have different needs. American bison live in parts of western North America where it gets quite a bit colder than parts of Africa. This is where their thick, shaggy coat comes in handy. In contrast, buffalo have a much shorter and thinner coat.

6. Shape

Buffalo in grassland
Buffalo in grassland | image by Stuart Orford via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Another distinctive feature of buffaloes and bison is their body shape. Although both clearly resemble large cow-like animals, they differ quite dramatically.

Bison, for example, have disproportionately large heads and a protruding shoulder hump, which gives their fronts a much wider appearance. As a result, their heads tend to be much lower to the ground, sloping their backs downwards.

Buffaloes on the other hand have a much smaller head relative to their overall body size, and lack the protruding shoulder hump that makes the bison unique. This makes the buffaloes head sit much higher, with a straight back.

Frequently asked questions about buffalo and bison

Why are bison mistakenly referred to as buffalo?

A number of reasons! Firstly, both their names begin with the letter “b”, which doesn’t help, and they are both large bovines. However, the name began to stick due to European settlers working in the US in the 1600s. Buffalo is derived from the french word “bœuf”.

If I go to Yellowstone National Park, will I see bison or buffalo?

Buffalo can only be found in Africa, Asia and Southeast Asia. This means that only bison species can be naturally found in America. Yellowstone National Park contains the largest herd of American bison

Can bison and buffalo breed with domestic cattle?

Both species can breed with domestic cattle. In fact, this is a frequent and somewhat regulated occurrence. The resulting offspring have been called “beefalo” which are now recognized as American livestock by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Beefalo are unable to breed, so their production is exclusively for the food industry.

Does ox refer to bison or buffalo?

During the phrase “strong as an ox” do you picture a bison, buffalo or regular cow? Well the truth is, an ox can refer to any of them.

The textbook definition of an ox is any cattle species (over four years of age) that has been trained to perform some kind of work. Most commonly, oxen (plural of ox) refer to young, castrated male cows.

How are bison linked to Native American culture?

Bison play an important role in Lakota culture. The Lakota are Native American people that once lived as nomads, following bison herds and using them sustainably for food and materials as they traveled.

Additionally, bison are ingrained as a major spiritual component of Lakota history and ongoing culture. The Lakota word for bison is “Tatanka”.

Which is the largest bovine species?

When comparing bison and buffalo, bison are larger and heavier than buffalo. However, looking at all bovines, they are easily trumped by the gaur (also known as the Indian bison). The shoulder height of gaur can be over 7 feet tall, with a mass of up to 3,300 pounds. Gaur are native to South Asia and Southeast Asia.

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Are buffalo or bison more dangerous?

Due to their large size, both buffalo and bison have the ability to be dangerous to humans as most wildlife do. There have been several dozen people killed by bison in Yellowstone National park and many reports of people being charged by bison.

The African water buffalo, on the other hand, is known to be one of the most dangerous animals in Africa. They may kill up to 200 people per year by charging and goring people. Both bison and buffaloes should be given plenty of space!