Buffalo or bison?

Buffalo or Bison?

Wood Bison courtesy of Doug Lindstrand

What do you call lending money to a buffalo? A buff-a-loan!

Wondering why we made this joke when it’s bison month not buffalo? We wanted to explain the difference between the two!

Bison: live only in North America (a small population of relatives live in Poland), a member of the Bovidae family, has a large shoulder hump and massive head, and lots of hair.
Buffalo: the two main species live in Africa and Asia, a member of the Bovidae family also known as ungulates, large rounded horns, and no hump or thick hair.

Buffalo or Bison?

Plains Bison courtesy of Ron Henggeler

At the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, we have the wood bison. Wood bison are larger than the plains bison found in the central part of North America. Wood bison tend be larger than the typical plains bison.

Wood bison also have curlier hair and a square-shaped hump – both good for working through the snow to find grass and mosses to eat during winter. Plains bison have a rounded hump and a “cape” of hair which hangs around their shoulders.

Plains bison do live in the northern tundra, wood bison are just better adapted physically for the climate challenges.

Buffalo or Bison?

Water Buffalo courtesy of Doug Engle

In May of 2016, President Barrack Obama officially declared the bison as the United States’ National Mammal – and the bald eagle being the National Animal. When it became official, the world created National Bison Month to celebrate and preserve the beautiful and majestic animal.

Relatives to woolly mammoths, bison survived the Ice Age. They also survived over-hunting in the 1800’s when bison became incredibly endangered. By persistence and conservation, the bison population now thrives at over 400,000.

This is due to both the ranch boom of the later 1800’s and Teddy Roosevelt’s help. In 1905, Roosevelt formed the American Bison Society to help save the disappearing species. Bison now live in all 50 states and roam free in over half.

Buffalo or Bison?

African Buffalo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Buffalo, however, are more related to cows than they are to the woolly mammoth. The cow is present in both species – buffalo and bison. In another attempt to save the bison during the 1900’s, ranchers mated bison and cows, bringing the bison one step closer to buffalo relations. Though the bison-cow relations ended soon after beginning, cow genes are still present in the bison of today.

Bison and buffalo live to be about 20 years old. Female bison, or cows, begin breeding at 2 and male bison, or bulls, don’t breed until 6. Buffalo are the opposite where the bulls begin breeding at 3 and the cows don’t breed until 6.

Both species have a gestation period of approximately 9-11 months. Calves are born one per cow per season, and bison calves have the nickname “red dog” for their reddish coloring.

Within a year the calves begin to brown and grow horns and shaggy fur.

*Feature photo courtesy of American Expedition
*Information taken from the sources below:

– 15 Facts About Our National Mammal: The American Bison.

– Bradford, Alina. 2014, July 31. Buffalo Facts: Water Buffalo & Cape Buffalo. https://www.livescience.com/27409-buffalo.html
– Bryner, Jeanna. (2012, September 6). Bison vs. Buffalo: What’s the Difference?  https://www.livescience.com/32115-bison-vs-buffalo-whats-the-difference.html
– Lewis, Danny.  (2016, May 9). The Bison is Now the Official Mammal of the United States. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/bison-now-official-mammal-united-states-180958921/

Bison vs. Buffalo

The animal that most Americans call a buffalo is actually a bison. Buffaloes are found in Africa and South Asia, while bison roam in North and South America. This comparison examines the differences between buffaloes and bison in terms of physical characteristics, habitats, lifespan, and temperament.

Bison versus Buffalo comparison chart








Native to










Used for

Thick fur. Light fur.
Grass and hay. Grass.
700 to 2,200 lb. 1200 kg (2640 lb) for wild water buffalo; 850 kg (1870 lb) for domestic water buffalo; 909 kg (2000 lb) for Cape buffalo.
13-21 years. 25-30 (Water Buffalo); 15-25 (Cape Buffalo).
Animalia Animalia
Sharp and small. Not sharp but long (Water buffalo); medium & sharp (Cape buffalo).
Chordata Chordata
North and South America, Europe. Asia (Water), Africa (Cape).
Thick beard. No beard.
Four footed, huge structure, large hump. Four footed, huge frame, no hump.
Mammalia Mammalia
Artiodactyla Artiodactyla
2 million. 150 Million (Water); 160,000 (Cape).
Bovidae Bovidae
No. Yes (Water); No (Cape).
Plains. Rugged lands. Really cold places. Cannot live in rugged conditions (Water). Can and mostly does live in rugged conditions (Cape).
Bison Bubalus (Water Buffalo); Syncerus (Cape Buffalo)
Meat, clothing, shelter, weapons. Milk, cattle, meat (Water) . Once hunted as trophies, but now meat for hunters and other animals (Cape).

Contents: Bison vs Buffalo

Buffalo or Bison? The bison hunt display at the entrance to the Museum of Man and Nature.

  • Bison have a hairy fur coat on their body which grows thicker in the winters as a protection from the rugged environment they live in. Buffalo do not have thick fur.
  • Bison have very sharp horns which they use for their defense. A buffalo's horns aren't very sharp but are longer than a bison's.
  • Bison have a huge hump on their back which Buffaloes do not have.
  • Bison also have a thick beard that circles around their rib cage but Buffaloes do not have a thick beard.
  • A Bisons' temperament is associated with its rugged structure and it can be a very aggressive animal when threatened. While the African cape buffalo is also aggressive, Asian water buffaloes are peaceful animals, which is why they are domesticated.
  • Buffaloes grow up to 5 feet in size while Bison may grow to 6 feet.
  • Bison can run faster than Buffaloes.
  • Buffaloes can weigh between 800-1200 kg while Bison can weigh up to 1400 kg.
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Buffalo or Bison? A buffalo

Buffalo are highly domesticated or raised for their meat, hence they have a very lazy and tame habitat. They are accustomed to living in mild temperatures. Bison, on the other hand, are not domesticated. Bison are accustomed to rugged conditions and can survive extreme conditions.

Geographical distribution

Bisons are native to North and South America (but are also found in Asia and Africa now). Buffaloes are native to Asia and Africa (and are found in other parts of the world now).


Buffalo or Bison? A bison cantering – set to motion using photos by Eadweard Muybridge

Bisons live in rugged conditions and hence live till their teenage years while domesticated buffaloes are known to live for 25-30 years.


Both Buffalo and Bison have similar diet – they thrive on grass. Both these animals drink gallons of water every day.


Buffaloes, except for one or two species are domesticated, while Bisons aren't domesticated. Buffalo milk is also used in Asia and Africa for consumption. Buffaloes are used as work animals extensively while bison are mostly wild in nature and aren't used for work. Both animals are also raised for their meat.


The Bison population is estimated to be around 2 million. There are about 20,000 wild bison and 400,000 commercial bison (raised for meat) in the United States.[1] Buffaloes are more numerous and their population is estimated to be around 150 million across the world.

Related Videos

The video below discusses the life of bison at Yellowstone National Park.

And here is a video of wolves hunting American bison on snow in Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta, Canada.


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Difference Between Bison and Buffalo

Although the terms buffalo and bison are now used synonymously, the scientific name for the ‘buffalo’ found in America is bison.

Bison = Artiodactyla Ruminata Bovidae

The ‘true’ buffalo are often referred to as those in Asia or Africa. They belong to a different family than the American bison. The physical differences are more evident. These buffalo do not have a large hump like the American bison.

Buffalo or Bison?

American Bison (or buffalo)  is considered to be lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than Beef and Chicken.

Bison meat is relatively tender and thought to be sweeter and richer in flavor when compared to beef. A variety of cuts are available and can be used for roasting, grilling, broiling, crockpot cooking and even stir frying.

Bison meat is generally a little darker red and leaner than beef. It’s similar in overall appearance to beef except it’s a dark red in colour.

Bison is great for people watching their cholesterol, but still want to eat meat. Northfork Bison’s healthful protein rich food has no antibiotics or added hormones. It is leaner than beef, pork or even chicken.

Why not try some bison meat. Northfork Bison has online shipping right to your door. Packed in ice, it will arrive at your home or office.

Try some for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. A bison roast  a great change from traditional turkey.

Bison vs Buffalo: What’s the Difference?

You can blame early European settlers of the Great Plains for all the confusion. They too were confused, calling the vast herds of large, hoofed animals “buffelo” due to their (somewhat) similar appearance to the creatures found in Africa and Asia. They were, in fact, bison.

Both the buffalo and bison are in the Bovidae family, which also includes other cloven-hoofed ruminants, like goats. The two main species of buffalo are the African or Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) and the endangered wild Asian water buffalo (Bubalus arnee). There’s also a domestic water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis), that is smaller than its wild cousin.

As for bison, the two main species are the American bison (Bison bison) and the European bison (Bison bonasus), which ismainlyfound in Poland, but is starting to make a comeback in very small numbers in other parts of Europe. There is also a distinctive northern subspecies of the American bison called the wood bison (Bison bison athabascae), native to Alaska and Canada.

Here are five distinct differences to help you distinguish between these big boys and girls of the grass-eating world.

Bison have a large shoulder hump of pure muscle and a massive head that makes their hindquarters look smaller than their fronts. Both the Cape buffalo and water buffalo have smaller heads and shoulders in proportion to the rest of their bodies, giving them a more symmetrical appearance.

Both male and female Capebuffalo have large horns in the shape of a handlebar mustache that sweep up on the ends and can grow up to three or more feet across on males. The water buffalo trumps them all with its majestic horns that can have a six-foot span in both sexes. Bison horns of both sexes average around two feet.

Bison have a thick, shaggy coat that keeps them warm in the harsh winter weather of the Great Plains, which they shed in the hot summer months. Both the Cape buffalo and the water buffalo have a thinner coat that they don’t shed.

Bison would fit right in at a Williamsburg coffee shop or hip East Village bar with their long, unkempt beard. Buffalo, however, might feel more comfortable in a Midtown office with a strict facial hair policy; they lack a beard of any sort.

The American bison wins in the length department: Males, called bulls, can grow up to 12.5 feet from head to rump and weigh as much as 2,200 pounds.

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The Cape buffalo comes in second in length, at around 11 feet and weighs in at a little less than 2,00o pounds. The water buffalo can grow up to nine feet and weigh as much as 2,650 pounds, making it the heavyweight champion.

Its tail is also longer than that of a bison, up to 33 inches compared with 26 inches for the bison.

Check out all our stories from #bisonweek!

American bison

Species of bovid artiodactyl mammal

American bisonTemporal range: 0.01–0 Ma

Early Holocene – present

Plains bison (Bison bison bison)

Wood bison (Bison bison athabascae)

Conservation status

Near Threatened (IUCN 3.1)[1]

Scientific classification


















B. bison

Binomial name

Bison bison(Linnaeus, 1758)


B. b. athabascae
B. b. bison


  • Bos americanus Gmelin, 1788
  • Bos bison Linnaeus, 1758
  • Bison americanus (Gmelin, 1788
  • Bison bison montanae Krumbiegel, 1980

The American bison or simply bison (Bison bison), also commonly known as the American buffalo or simply buffalo, is an American species of bison that once roamed North America in vast herds.

Its historical range, by 9000 BCE, is described as the great bison belt, a tract of rich grassland that ran from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico, east to the Atlantic Seaboard (nearly to the Atlantic tidewater in some areas) as far north as New York and south to Georgia and, according to some sources, down to Florida, with sightings in North Carolina near Buffalo Ford on the Catawba River as late as 1750.[2][3][4] It nearly became extinct by a combination of commercial hunting and slaughter in the 19th century and introduction of bovine diseases from domestic cattle. With a population in excess of 60 million in the late 18th century, the species was down to 541 animals by 1889. Recovery efforts expanded in the mid-20th century, with a resurgence to roughly 31,000[5] animals today, largely restricted to a few national parks and reserves. Through multiple reintroductions, the species is now also freely roaming wild in some regions in Yakutia as well as Mexico.

Two subspecies or ecotypes have been described: the plains bison (B. b. bison), smaller in size and with a more rounded hump, and the wood bison (B. b. athabascae)—the larger of the two and having a taller, square hump.[6][7][8][9][10][11] Furthermore, the plains bison has been suggested to consist of a northern plains (B. b.

montanae) and a southern plains (B. b. bison) subspecies, bringing the total to three.[9] However, this is generally not supported. The wood bison is one of the largest wild species of extant bovid in the world, surpassed by only the Asian gaur and wild yak in wither height.

Among extant land animals in North America, the bison is the heaviest and the longest, and the second tallest after the moose.

Spanning back many centuries, Native American tribes have had cultural and spiritual connections to the American bison. It is the national mammal of the United States of America.


Adult male (farther) and adult female (closer), in Yellowstone National Park

The term buffalo is sometimes considered to be a misnomer for this animal, and could be confused with “true” buffalos, the Asian water buffalo and the African buffalo. However, the name buffalo is listed in many dictionaries as an acceptable name for American buffalo or bison. Samuel de Champlain applied the term buffalo (buffles in French) to the bison in 1616 (published 1619), after seeing skins and a drawing shown to him by members of the Nipissing First Nation, who said they travelled forty days (from east of Lake Huron) to trade with another nation who hunted the animals.[12] In English usage, the term buffalo dates to 1625 in North America, when the term was first recorded for the American mammal.[13] It thus has a much longer history than the term bison, which was first recorded in 1774.[14] The American bison is very closely related to the European bison (also known as wisent or the European wood bison).

In Plains Indian languages in general, male and female buffaloes are distinguished, with each having a different designation rather than there being a single generic word covering both sexes. Thus:

  • in Arapaho: bii (buffalo cow), henéécee (buffalo bull)
  • in Lakota: pté (buffalo cow), tȟatȟáŋka (buffalo bull)

Such a distinction is not a general feature of the language (for example, Arapaho possesses gender-neutral terms for other large mammals such as elk, mule deer, etc.), and so presumably is due to the special significance of the buffalo in Plains Indian life and culture.


Male plains bison in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma
American bison galloping, photos by Eadweard Muybridge, first published in 1887 in Animal Locomotion

A bison has a shaggy, long, dark-brown winter coat, and a lighter-weight, lighter-brown summer coat. As is typical in ungulates, male bison are slightly larger than females and, in some cases, can be considerably heavier. Plains bison are often in the smaller range of sizes, and wood bison in the larger range. Head-rump lengths at maximum range from 2.8 to 3.5 m (9 ft 2 in to 11 ft 6 in) long and the tail adding 30 to 90 cm (1 ft 0 in to 2 ft 11 in).[15][16]
Heights at withers in the species can range from 152 to 186 cm (5 ft 0 in to 6 ft 1 in) for B. b. bison while B. b. athabascae reaches over 2 m (6 ft 7 in).[16] Typically weights can range from 318 to 1,179 kg (701 to 2,599 lb)[16][17][18][19] Typical weight ranges in the species were reported as 460 to 988 kg (1,014 to 2,178 lb) in males and 360 to 544 kg (794 to 1,199 lb) in females, the lowest weights probably representing typical weight around the age of sexual maturity at 2 to 3 years of age.[20] Mature bulls tend to be considerably larger than cows. Cow weights have had reported medians of 450 to 495 kg (992 to 1,091 lb), with one small sample averaging 479 kg (1,056 lb), whereas bulls may reportedly weigh a median of 730 kg (1,610 lb) with an average from a small sample of 765 kg (1,687 lb).[21][22][23][24] The heaviest wild bull ever recorded weighed 1,270 kg (2,800 lb).[25] When raised in captivity and farmed for meat, the bison can grow unnaturally heavy and the largest semidomestic bison weighed 1,724 kg (3,801 lb).[17] The heads and forequarters are massive, and both sexes have short, curved horns that can grow up to 60 cm (2 ft) long with 90 cm (3 ft) width,[26] which they use in fighting for status within the herd and for defense.

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Bison are herbivores, grazing on the grasses and sedges of the North American prairies.

Their daily schedule involves two-hour periods of grazing, resting, and cud chewing, then moving to a new location to graze again.

Sexually mature young bulls may try to start mating with cows by the age of two or three years, but if more mature bulls are present, they may not be able to compete until they reach five years of age.

For the first two months of life, calves are lighter in color than mature bison. One very rare condition is the white buffalo, in which the calf turns entirely white.


The bovine family (taurids and bisonids) diverged from the common ancestral line with water buffalo and African buffalo about 5 to 10 million years ago.

[27] Thereafter, the family lineage of bison and taurine cattle does not appear to be a straightforward “tree” structure as is often depicted in much evolution, because evidence exists of interbreeding and crossbreeding between different species and members within this family, even many millions of years after their ancestors separated into different species. This cross breeding was not sufficient to conflate the different species back together, but it has resulted in unexpected relationships between many members of this group, such as yak being related to American bison, when such relationships would otherwise not be apparent.

A 2003 study of mitochondrial DNA indicated four distinct maternal lineages in subtribe Bovina:

  1. Taurine cattle and zebu
  2. European bison (wisent)
  3. American bison and yak[28]
  4. Banteng, gaur, and gayal

However, Y chromosome analysis associated wisent and American bison.

[29] An earlier study using amplified fragment length polymorphism fingerprinting showed a close association of wisent and American bison and probably with yak, but noted that the interbreeding of Bovini species made determining relationships problematic.[30] It is shown, however, the wisent may have emerged by species divergence initiated by the introgression of bison bulls in a separate ancestral species,[31] the aurochs.[32]

Last of the Canadian Buffaloes, 1902, photograph: Steele and Company
Pile of American bison skulls waiting to be processed outside glueworks (Detroit, 1892).

The steppe bison (Bison priscus) diverged from the lineage that led to cattle (Bos taurus) about 2 to 5 million years ago. The bison genus is clearly in the fossil record by 2 million years ago.[18] The steppe bison spread across Eurasia and was the bison that was pictured in the ancient cave paintings of Spain and Southern France.

The European bison arose from the steppe bison, without fossil evidence of other ancestral species between the steppe bison and the European bison, though the European bison might have arisen from the lineage that led to American bison if that lineage backcrossed with the steppe bison.

Again, the web of relationships is confusing, but some evidence shows the European bison is descended from bison that had migrated from Asia to North America, and then back to Europe, where they crossbred with existing steppe bison.[18] At one point, some steppe bison crossbred with the ancestors of the modern yak.

After that cross, a population of steppe bison (Bison priscus) crossed the Bering Land Bridge to North America. Evidence has been found of multiple crossings of bison to and from Asia starting before 500,000 years ago and continuing until at least 220,000 years ago.

The steppe bison spread through the northern parts of North America and lived in Eurasia until roughly 11,000 years ago[33] and North America until 4,000 to 8,000 years ago.[18]

Bison latifrons (giant bison or longhorn bison) is thought to have evolved in midcontinent North America from B. priscus, after the steppe bison crossed into North America.[34][35][36] Giant bison (B.

latifrons) appeared in the fossil record around 500,000 years ago.[18] B. latifrons was one of many species of North American megafauna which became extinct during the Quaternary extinction event.

It is thought to have disappeared some 21,000–30,000 years ago, during the late Wisconsin glaciation.[37]

The B. latifrons species was replaced by the smaller Bison antiquus. B. antiquus appeared in the North American fossil record approximately 250,000 years ago.[38] B.

antiquus, in turn, evolved into B. occidentalis, then into the yet smaller B. bison—the modern American bison—some 5,000 to 10,000 years ago.[39][40] Some researchers consider B.

occidentalis to be a subspecies of B. antiquus.[41]

Differences from European bison

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