What’s the Difference Between Buffalo and Bison?

In discussions about North American wildlife, the terms “buffalo” and “bison” are often used interchangeably, leading to confusion and a blurred understanding of these majestic creatures. However, knowing the difference between buffalo and bison is fundamental for a complete understanding of their ecological, historical, and cultural significance. 

This distinction allows us to appreciate the unique qualities of each species and their contributions to the American landscape. Understanding these differences deepens our knowledge of these iconic animals and creates a greater sense of stewardship for their conservation and preservation.

A bison quietly rests in a grassy field.
A bull bison quietly rests in a grassy field. Bison grow long woolly coats to keep them warm during harsh winters. NPS Photo

Common Usage of “Buffalo” and “Bison” 

The common usage of “buffalo” and “bison” interchangeably stems from historical and linguistic contexts. Early European settlers in North America referred to the massive herds of American bison as “buffalo” due to their resemblance to the buffalo species found in Africa and Asia. This misnomer persisted over time, and the term “buffalo” became ingrained in popular usage and cultural references.

Importance of Understanding the Key Differences:

While informally referring to American bison as “buffalo” may be widely accepted, understanding the key differences between buffalo and bison is important. Scientifically and taxonomically, buffalo and bison belong to distinct genera and have different physical characteristics, habitats, and historical and cultural significance.

Recognizing the unique contributions of buffalo and bison to the cultural heritage of indigenous communities and the history of the United States allows us to appreciate their profound significance in shaping the American landscape. Understanding these key differences between buffalo and bison also enhances our knowledge and highlights the need for informed conservation efforts.

a mother bison and her two calves
A mother bison and her two calves. Calves stay with their mothers until they are about one year old. NPS Photo

Buffalo vs. Bison – What is the difference?

The Buffalo genus, represented by Syncerus and Bubalus, encompasses species found primarily in Africa and Asia. In contrast, the Bison genus consists of American and European bison found in North America and Europe, respectively. These genera differ in physical characteristics, geographic distribution, and ecological adaptations.

The Buffalo genus includes two main species: Syncerus and Bubalus

Syncerus (African Buffalo)

The Syncerus genus comprises the African buffalo species, also known as the Cape buffalo. They are primarily found in sub-Saharan Africa. African buffalo are robust and powerful animals, characterized by their dark brown to black coats and large, curving horns. They inhabit various habitats, including grasslands, woodlands, and wetlands. African buffalo live in herds and are known for their formidable nature, often displaying protective behaviors towards their group.

Bubalus (Asian Water Buffalo) 

The Bubalus genus includes the Asian water buffalo species, which is primarily found in Asia. Asian water buffalo have been domesticated for centuries and are widely used as working animals in agriculture and transportation. They have a massive build, with large, curved horns and distinctive features that vary among subspecies. Their coat color can range from dark gray to light gray or even white. Asian water buffalo are well adapted to wetland habitats and are particularly valued for their ability to traverse marshy areas.

Bison

In contrast, the Bison genus refers specifically to the American bison (Bison bison) and the European bison (Bison bonasus). American bison, also known as American buffalo, were once widespread across the Great Plains of North America. They have a shaggy brown coat, a pronounced hump over their shoulders, and sharp, curving horns.

European bison, or wisent, are primarily found in isolated populations in protected areas. They have a larger and more robust build than American bison, with a dark brown coat and distinctive horns that curve inward and upward.

Physical Characteristics 

Buffalo tend to have a sleeker build, larger and wider-set horns, and a smooth coat, while bison have a more robust build, shorter and sharper horns, and a shaggy coat with a shoulder hump. These physical characteristics contribute to their distinct appearances and adaptations to their respective environments.

Size and Build

Buffalo and bison differ in their size and build. Buffalo species, such as the African buffalo and Asian water buffalo, tend to have a sleeker and more streamlined build compared to bison. They are generally smaller in size, with adult males weighing between 1,300 to 2,200 pounds and standing around 5 to 5.5 feet tall at the shoulder. On the other hand, bison, particularly the American bison, have a more robust and stocky build. Adult male bison can weigh up to 2,000 to 2,200 pounds and stand around 6 to 6.5 feet tall at the shoulder.

Horns

One of the distinguishing features between buffalo and bison is their horns. Buffalo species, such as the African buffalo and Asian water buffalo, have larger and wider-set horns that grow outward and curve upward. Their horns often form a characteristic “boss” or shield-like structure across the front of their heads. In contrast, bison have shorter, sharper horns that curve inward and upward from the sides of their massive heads. Bison horns do not typically form a “boss” structure.

Coat and Appearance

Buffalo and bison also differ in their coat and appearance. Buffalo species, especially the African buffalo, have a smooth and dark brown to black coat. They possess a sparse covering of hair, with their skin often exposed in patches. In contrast, bison have a shaggy and dense coat that varies in color from dark brown to reddish-brown. Their fur provides insulation in colder climates. Additionally, bison have a distinctive hump over their shoulders, which is absent in buffalo species.

Habitat and Distribution of Buffalo and Bison

The distribution of buffalo species and American bison reflects their adaptations to specific habitats and historical range dynamics. Preserving and protecting their habitats and populations are critical for conserving these iconic species and their ecosystems.

Buffalo Species: African Cape buffalo, Asian water buffalo

African Cape Buffalo

An African Cape Buffalo with its long, wide, curved horns
An African Cape Buffalo with its long, wide, curved horns.

The African Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is primarily found in sub-Saharan Africa. They are adaptable to a variety of habitats, including grasslands, woodlands, savannas, and wetlands. Cape buffalo are known for their ability to thrive in diverse ecosystems, from open plains to dense vegetation. They have a wide distribution across many countries in Africa, including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and others. They can be found in national parks, game reserves, and other protected areas.

Asian Water Buffalo

The Asian water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is native to Asia and has a distribution that spans several countries in the region. They are particularly associated with wetland habitats like marshes, swamps, and floodplains. Asian water buffalo can be found in countries such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, and China. They are adaptable animals and can be both domesticated and wild, although their wild populations are more limited.

A domesticated Asian water buffalo
A domesticated Asian water buffalo. Domesticated water buffalo are often smaller than their wild counterparts and display a variety of colors.

American Bison: Native to North America, particularly the Great Plains region

The American bison (Bison bison) is indigenous to North America and historically roamed across the Great Plains in vast numbers. However, human activities and habitat loss have significantly diminished their range. Today, American bison are primarily found in protected areas, national parks, and reserves in North America. They can be found in various states across the U.S., including Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, and others. Notable locations where bison populations thrive include Yellowstone National Park, Badlands National Park, and other conservation areas.

Ecological Roles and Behavior

Buffalo and bison play vital ecological roles in the environments they inhabit. As herbivores, their grazing behaviors shape their habitats’ vegetation composition and structure. Their particular feeding preferences influence plant species diversity and promote the growth of nutritious grasses. 

Through grazing, buffalo and bison help maintain open grasslands, prevent the encroachment of woody vegetation, and enhance overall biodiversity. They also contribute to nutrient cycling by trampling vegetation and depositing nutrient-rich droppings, which fertilize the soil and support the growth of new plants.

Grazing Habits

Buffalo and bison are predominantly grazing animals, feeding on grasses and sedges. They use their specialized tongues to graze close to the ground, cropping vegetation with efficiency. While buffalo species are known to be more adaptable in their diet and may browse on leaves and shrubs when grass is scarce, bison primarily rely on grazing. Both buffalo and bison have developed efficient digestive systems capable of breaking down fibrous plant material, allowing them to extract nutrients from tough grasses.

A lone bison is seen grazing in an open field at Wind Cave National Park
A lone bison is seen grazing in an open field at Wind Cave National Park. Bison frequently graze in prairie dog towns since the grasses there are more nutritious and easier to eat. NPS Photo

Social Behavior and Herd Dynamics

Buffalo and bison exhibit social behavior characterized by the formation of herds. These herds provide numerous benefits, including protection against predators, enhanced foraging opportunities, and social interaction. Buffalo herds are often structured in matriarchal societies, with older females leading the group. They form cohesive units that protect and care for their young. In contrast, bison herds typically consist of smaller family groups led by a dominant male, known as a bull. 

During the mating season, bulls engage in displays of dominance and competition for breeding rights. The herds also serve as a means of communication, where individuals engage in vocalizations, body postures, and other behavioral cues to maintain social bonds and establish hierarchies within the group.

Cultural Significance

The cultural significance of buffalo and American bison extends beyond their tangible contributions to sustenance and survival. They hold a deep spiritual and symbolic connection to indigenous cultures and represent the historical and cultural identity of the United States. 

Appreciating the cultural significance of buffalo and American bison allows us to honor and respect their rich heritage.

Buffalo: In Native American cultures, the buffalo holds great symbolic and spiritual significance. It is revered as a sacred and powerful animal, representing strength, abundance, and connection with nature. The buffalo provided Native American communities with sustenance, clothing, shelter, and tools, making it a central figure in their way of life. Rituals and ceremonies were dedicated to honoring the buffalo, expressing gratitude for its blessings, and seeking its guidance. The buffalo’s teachings about resilience, adaptability, and harmony with the natural world remain integral to Native American traditions and continue to be passed down through generations.

American Bison: The American bison, often called the American buffalo, is iconic in American history and culture. It symbolizes the rugged spirit of the West, embodying the spirit of exploration, resilience, and pioneering nature of the American people. The bison’s image has been romanticized in literature, art, and popular culture, representing the untamed wilderness and the disappearing frontier. It serves as a powerful reminder of the ecological and cultural impacts of westward expansion, the fur trade, and the subsequent conservation efforts. Today, the American bison is recognized as a national symbol and an enduring emblem of American heritage, representing the need for wildlife conservation and the preservation of the nation’s natural treasures.

An adult bison stands before the majestic Teton Mountain Range inside Grand Teton National Park
An adult bison stands before the majestic Teton Mountain Range inside Grand Teton National Park. NPS / Jerry Megenity

Final Thoughts

Understanding the key differences between buffalo and bison in the USA is crucial for fully appreciating these remarkable species. While buffalo and bison are often used interchangeably in everyday language, they belong to distinct scientific classifications and possess unique physical characteristics, habitats, and historical significance. 

These iconic species have shaped landscapes, provided sustenance for indigenous communities, and played crucial roles in the history and identity of the United States. Recognizing buffalo and bison’s distinct ecological roles, behaviors, and cultural contributions allows us to develop a sense of stewardship and responsibility for their conservation.

By preserving these majestic creatures and appreciating their unique qualities, we help ensure a future where buffalo and bison continue to thrive, enriching our ecosystems and inspiring future generations for years to come. 

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About Me

My husband and I have three precious daughters and live in the Kansas City, KS area. One of our favorite things to do is travel across the country visiting our extraordinary US National Parks!

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Happy Travels! Sandy

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