What's the Difference Between a Buffalo and a Bison?

American bison in the winter landscape.
American bison in the winter landscape.

People around the world often use the words “bison” and “buffalo” interchangeably, but the truth is, they are two completely different things. Buffalo and bison do share some similarities, like their large size and the fact that they both have horns. This article takes a closer look at the differences between these two animals, which are divided into four species: American bison, European bison, Cape buffalo, and water buffalo.


The European Bison

The European bison was considered extinct in the wild by 1919 due to overhunting practices, although reintroduction efforts have resulted in a wild or semi-wild population size of around 3,500 currently. The majority of these animals, the largest land mammal in Europe, can be found in Poland and Romania. The second largest population size inhabits state-owned forests in the Netherlands as well. Other countries with even smaller European bison populations include: France, Germany, Russia, Spain, the Czech Republic, the Ukraine, and Denmark. Today, this species is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN.

The European bison lives in either mixed-sex or entirely male herds of between 8 and 13 individuals. This species may grow to between 6.9 and 11.5 feet in length and between 5.2 and 6.4 feet in height. Males weigh an average of 1,398 pounds while females weigh around 935 pounds.

The American Bison

It is the American bison that is commonly, and incorrectly, referred to as a buffalo. In fact, a traditional American-Western song famously includes the line, “Give me a home, where the buffalo roam”, to refer to the American bison. Interestingly, however, buffalo have never inhabited the Americas. This misnomer is believed to come from the fact that when early European settlers arrived to North America, they saw a resemblance between this animal and the buffalo. Another theory suggests that the word “buffalo” is derived from the Latin word “bufalus”, which means wild ox, another animal that closely resembles the bison. For example, French fur trappers in North America referred to this species as boeuf.

The American bison was nearly brought to extinction during the 19th century due to overhunting, like the European bison. Today, this species is considered near threatened by the IUCN. It grows to between 6.6 and 11.5 feet in length and may weigh anywhere from 794 to 2,178 pounds, depending on sex.

Differences Between The American And The European Bisons

The American and European bisons can be differentiated by a number of characteristics, including: height, hair, and horns. The European bisons have longer legs than the American, making them the slightly taller of the two. Additionally, the American bison grows thicker, slightly longer body hair than the European bison, which does have longer hair on its tail. The horns are also different; that of the European bison face forward.


The Cape Buffalo

The Cape buffalo, also known as the African buffalo, has a population size of around 900,000. It can be found throughout the areas of sub-Saharan Africa in both savannas and mountain forests. This species can reach between 3.3 and 5.6 feet at shoulder height and weighs between 600 and 2,200. The Cape buffalo found living in the forest are smaller than those living in the savannah. They have relatively short body hair and are easily recognized by their long, curved horns, which almost form a perfect loop.

The Water Buffalo

The water buffalo, also known as the wild Asian buffalo, has a population size of around 3,400 and is considered endangered by the IUCN. The vast majority of these animals currently live in India with smaller populations in Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal, and Bhutan. This species reaches a height of roughly 5 to 6 feet at the shoulder and a weight of between 1,300 and 2,600 pounds. The water buffalo has short hair and long, curved horns. Its horns are different from those of the Cape buffalo as they do not form a complete loop.

Differences Between The Water And Cape Buffalos

The water and Cape buffalos have a number of physical differences in addition to the shape of their horns. The frontal forehead of the Cape buffalo is covered by a large, bone-like substance that extends from the bottom of its horns. Additionally, the Cape buffalo has a smaller, less splayed foot structure than the water buffalo, which has adapted to the harder surface that it lives upon.

Differences Between Bison And Buffalo

The differences between bison and buffalo involves more than simply the continent that they inhabit. These differences have largely evolved due to the different climates faced by each species. Bison are from the much colder climates of North America and Europe while the buffalo is found in the warmer climates of Asia and Africa, for instance.

If a bison and buffalo were standing side by side, the first most obvious and biggest difference between the two is the shoulder hump. Bison have a large, tall hump located squarely on top of its shoulders; this hump is absent in the buffalo species. The bison has evolved this hump over time in response to its habitat. The hump give this species a particularly powerful head, which allows it to push aside heavy snow drifts that occur during the cold North American and European winters. Generally, this hump is covered in fur. Additionally, the bison has longer facial hair along its lower jaw, making it appear to have a beard.

As previously mentioned, buffalo have long and curved horns, which are longest in the Cape buffalo. The bison, in contrast, does not have such long horns. Theirs are shorter and sharper, allowing them to fight against each other with their heads. The buffalo has a lighter coat of short fur, which allows water to roll off its back, whereas the bison has longer, thicker fur to keep it warm in the winters. In addition, bison are known to run faster and over longer distances than the buffalo, which is known as a relatively slow-moving animal that runs only if provoked by a predator for example. Finally, the less obvious difference between these two species is in their life expectancy. The bison has a life expectancy of anywhere from 13 to 21 years of age, while the buffalo lives a longer life of between 25 and 30 years on average.


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