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Bison vs. Buffalo

bison vs. buffalo

In this post, we will carefully compare the Bison vs. Buffalo.

Although these two species look very similar to one another, they have very little in common other than belonging to the same family: Bovidae. In this post we will carefully assess all of their different features to get to know them properly, but most importantly to once and for all clarify which one is which!

Let’s examine the Bison vs. Buffalo!



The largest terrestrial mammal in North America, the bison – a cow species, has long captured the imaginations of Americans with their enormous heads, giant horns, and shaggy coats. But don’t be fooled by their stout stature. Bison are capable of running at speeds of 40 mph!

Around 60 million bison inhabited the forests, plains, and river basins from Alaska to Mexico at the beginning of the 1800s. When only approximately 635 individuals were still in the wild in 1889, the Roosevelt administration put them on the list of protected species. 

Today, there are roughly 20,500 wild bison, thanks to education and repopulation initiatives.

Bison Scientific Names


Languages such as Latin, Proto-Germanic, and Middle English contributed to the word “bison,” meaning “wild ox.”

Two distinct species of bison exist. The first is a species that goes by the scientific name Bison bison bison, mostly found in North America. The second kind, primarily found in Europe, is known as Bison bison bonasus.

People sometimes refer to bison as “buffalo” or “American buffalo.” Despite being widespread, the term is not very accurate because bison are not related to the true buffalo and water buffalo found in Africa and Asia. When exploring North America in the 18th century, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain is supposed to have misidentified bison as buffalo, leading to the widespread misuse of the word.

Bison are sometimes referred to as wisent in Europe. Though linguists aren’t quite sure of the word’s origins, most concur that it derives from a Slavic or Baltic name that means “the stinky beast.”

The name for bison in Siouan languages, which Lakota and Sioux people use, is “Tatanka,” which means “he who possesses us” or “great beast.”

Bison Appearance and Behavior

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Massive bison have two massive horns. In North America, an adult is typically 6 feet 2 inches tall – in other words, taller than Michal Jordan, a basketball star! 

With heights of 6 feet 11 inches and lengths of 9 feet 6 inches, European bison are slightly longer and taller than their American counterpart.

The weight of an American bison ranges from 880 to 2,800 pounds. Typically, European bison weigh between 1,800 and 2,200 pounds. In other words, a bison is essentially as heavy as a car.

Bison that live in cold climates have long, scruffy hair. Warmer-weather residents have shorter fur. At birth, they are an orange-red color. This then transforms into a dark brown coloration at roughly two months of age. During winter, they develop thicker coats that they slough off in the summer.

The artiodactyl classification of animals includes bison, which have cloven hooves. Despite being large creatures, they are swift and have a speed of 40 miles per hour. Bear in mind that the typical human can run between 8 and 10 miles per hour and that Elite runners average 13 miles per hour, like marathon legend Eliud Kipchoge.

Overall, bison are calm and lazy, but sometimes they might be daring and hazardous without any prior notice. Mothers become extremely protective if they spot a threat near their calves. You shouldn’t get any closer than 25 feet to the bison in order to stay on the safe side.

For parts of the year, bison normally reside in gender-specific herds. Male bison, sometimes known as bulls, join a male group known as a “bachelor herd” when they reach an age of two years. Generally, female herds are more significant than male herds, and they are led by a matriarch who makes important decisions like where they should graze and when they should go to bed. The mating season unites the male and female herds every year.

Bison enjoy wallowing, which doesn’t mean that they spend their time sulking. Wallowing animals roll around in the water, dirt, or dust. They have various reasons for acting this way. 

They occasionally use wallowing to regulate their body temperature or as an astringent to calm their skin, or they also engage in it for amusement or to attract mates during breeding. However, wallowing in an area where anthrax spores are present can be lethal to bison.

Bison Habitat


Wild bison still roam in Europe, Russia, and North America. Herds mostly stay in the Great Plains west of the Mississippi River and the tall-grass plains east of the Rocky Mountains in North America.

These areas are home to purebred American buffalo herds:

  1. Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and small sections of Utah and Idaho
  2. Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota
  3. Blue Mounds State Park in Minnesota
  4. Elk Island National Park in Alberta
  5. Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan
  6. The Henry Mountains in Utah

European bison mainly live in wooded areas.

Bison Diet


American bison are vegetarian nomads. Grass makes up 93% of their diet, followed by blooming shrubs (5%), hanging plants (2%), and flowers (2%). Bison must consume 1.6 percent of their body mass daily, roughly 24 pounds, or two bowling balls worth of vegetation, to stay healthy.

Based on the season and the availability of the most nutrient-dense foods, bison migrate with the vegetation. Like other cattle, they must avoid poisonous plants like milk vetch, hemlock, arrowgrass, and death camas.

Because the bison has a ruminant digestive tract they isolate and ferment nutrients in a specific area of their stomachs.

Bison Predators and Threats


Bison are hunted and eaten by humans, wolves, bears, and cougars. Native American tribes in North America ethically hunted bison for food before the 1800s. They supported entire villages using almost every component of the animal. 

Numerous things destroyed bison herds as people moved west. Railroads, mines, and industries all encroached on bison habitats and spread illnesses that led to the extinction of the species. The incidents are collectively referred to as “the great bison massacre of the 19th century.”

Thus, it begs the question: Are bison at risk of extinction? The answer differs according to the area.

Even though bison were initially considered a protected species in the United States, they aren’t anymore. However, groups like the Buffalo Field Campaign still advocate for their inclusion. The bison is classified as “near threatened” by the World Wildlife Foundation and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Other than the US, Canada has put wood bison on its endangered species list.

Reproduction, Babies, and Lifespan


Rutting season, or “the rut,” is the name of the bison breeding season, which starts in June and lasts through September. Female bison, sometimes known as “cows,” are animals that give birth to live young and go through a gestation period of roughly 285 days – similar to that of a human.

But compared to elephants, who can carry a pregnancy for over two years, they have it more straightforward. Additionally, bison usually only have one offspring at a time, like humans. However, twins do infrequently occur. A baby bison weighs a stunning 30 to 70 pounds (14 to 32 kilograms), roughly ten times more than a human infant.

Bulls bellow, wallow, scream, and roll around to entice females. To defend their wives, they also headbutt and charge at one another. Bison are monogamous, which means that only one male can mate with each female.

Between the ages of three and nineteen, bison can reproduce. Geriatric pregnancies are those that occur in cows after the age of eight.



This hefty African cow makes up for its lack of elegance with substance. African buffalo, which should not be mistaken for American bison, is a creature that can adapt to a wide variety of habitats, has a top speed of 37 mph, and is practically untamable. They remain in herds that “vote” during their roughly two-decade lives while grazing on lands increasingly at risk from human development.

In North America, the largest mammal is the bison, and is also referred to as the buffalo – it should, however, be underlined that this is an entirely different species from the African Buffalo. 

Buffalo scientific name


Syncerus caffer is the African buffalo’s scientific name. Greek for “top together” is “syneresis,” referring to the enormous horn bases on the male buffalo’s head that appear connected on top. “Caffer” is derived from the Latin phrase “Country of the Kaffirs,” which alludes to Africa.

Buffalo’s Appearance and Behavior


Although they may not have a direct genetic relationship to cattle, all African buffalo are huge, bovine-like creatures. Adults weigh 1,600 pounds on average, roughly the size of a four-wheeler. A charging buffalo can travel up to 37 miles per hour despite its big size.

Additionally, obstinance is a poor reputation for African buffalo. Although estimates vary, it is known as the “black death” because of the many lethal attacks by the buffalo. In one infamous incident, a professional hunting guide from South Africa was slaughtered by a buffalo that belonged to the same herd as the buffalo he had just shot.

Despite this reputation, studies have also revealed some democratic and altruistic behaviors in African buffalo herds. For instance, females lay in the direction they desire to migrate in a “vote process” that determines which direction the pack will move in next. Additionally, herds will ally to defend calf victims from harm. They’ll even watch out for the herd’s other adults.

Four distinct species of African buffalo exist. These are the cape buffalo, West African savanna buffalo, Central African savanna buffalo, and forest buffalo. They are identified mainly by the shape and size of their horns.

The most prevalent is the Cape buffalos, which have enormous, characteristic horns curling downward and back up, resembling those of a ram. They also have a dark-brown coat of short, gritty fur. Similar to Cape buffalo, Savanna buffalo have slightly shorter horns and a variety of fur patterns ranging from light brown to nearly black. With more golden brown (or even reddish) fur and shorter horns than the other buffalo, forest buffalos are typically smaller than the other species. Savanna buffalo that are younger occasionally have light brown coats, while most forest buffalo retain theirs throughout adulthood.

Buffaloes are herd animals that gather in huge groups, with each herd including between 50 and 500 individuals. Herds occasionally band together to form transient super-herds in the thousands to prevent predators from simply picking out individual members for an attack. Usually, a herd consists of females and their young.

Males occasionally establish “bachelor groups,” smaller herds entirely of adult males. But even these herds will split up into younger and older males. Older males tend to favor isolation.

Buffalo Habitat


If there is water nearby, African buffalo can live practically anywhere. Swamps, woodlands, and semi-arid brushlands are all included in this. They are found all over Africa, especially in its central and southern parts. Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, the Central African Republic, Botswana, and other nations where they are most prevalent.

Buffalo Diet

African buffalo

Despite their occasionally aggressive disposition, buffaloes don’t consume meat. They graze on vegetation during the day, as many hooved animals do. Buffalo will chew cud just like a cow even though they are only very distantly related to cows and other bovines in terms of evolution. This signifies that they will re-chew earlier vegetation to obtain additional nutrients.

African buffalo feed primarily at night, unlike other grazing animals. They do this partly because of their difficulty in controlling their body temperature.

Buffalo Predators and Threats

African buffalo

Buffalo are threatened by a variety of predators, but people and food supplies pose the most significant dangers. Because they graze to obtain their nutritional quota, they are vulnerable to malnutrition during droughts. 

Plenty of game safaris specifically target them because of their sought-after status among hunters. Buffalo that become isolated from the herd are always in danger from Africa’s natural predators, especially lions and groups of wild dogs.

However, reckless human development is the biggest threat to the African buffalo. Buffalo habitats are destroyed by development, such as converting farmland into homes or clearing areas for urban growth, which makes it more difficult for them to locate food. 

Buffalo Reproduction, Babies, and Lifespan

African buffalo

Every few years, the African buffalo gives birth to one calf. Mothers can carry their babies for up to a year longer than humans do! The newborn calf will depend on its mother for up to a year after being born. Although male buffalo will not actively participate in rearing, the calves will produce a distinctive cry that will alert the entire herd to their plight.

Calves continue to mature for a further four to five years after birth. Males often leave for one of the “bachelor” herds after reaching maturity, but females typically stay with the herd where they were born. Around this time, females will typically start having children.

The 5 Key Differences Between Bison vs. Buffalo

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Bison vs. Buffalo: Location

Both Asia and Africa are home to buffalo. Bison may be found throughout North America and Europe. As a result, bison require thicker fur than buffalo since they must endure colder climates.

Bison vs. Buffalo: Head and shoulders

Massive shoulders and a head hump are distinctive characteristics of bison. The heads of buffalo are much more in line with their body and are devoid of a hump.

Bison vs. Buffalo: Body Shape

Regarding body morphology, buffalo and bison differ because the former have relatively straight backs and angularly extended necks like most quadrupeds. Bison have substantially larger fronts due to their enormous heads and broad shoulder humps, and their backs have the appearance of sloping downward from the shoulders to the rump.

Bison vs. Buffalo: Horns

All bison have relatively small, slender horns that extend from their heads a few inches over their eyes. More comprehensive and up to six feet long, water buffalo horns grow laterally out of their heads before curling upward. 

African buffalo have enormous horns that resemble giant handlebar mustaches and usually cover the top of their heads.

Bison vs. Buffalo: Fur

Buffalo are year-round residents with thin, scanty fur. In the winter, bison have a shaggy coat that they shed in the summer. These animals’ fur is the primary way of distinguishing between bison and buffalo, making it much simpler to understand how they differ from one another.

Wrapping Up:

Key Points
Two distinct species of bison exist. The first is a species that goes by the scientific name Bison bison bison. The second kind is known mainly as Bison bison bonasus.Syncerus caffer is the African buffalo’s scientific name.
Wild bison are still present in Russia, Europe, and North America. Buffalos are found all over Africa, especially in its central and southern parts.
Bison have shorter and thinner horns growing directly from the top of their heads and only slightly curl, whereas buffalo have longer, more prominent horns
A key difference between bison and buffalo is the shoulder shape and horn length.
Buffalo are year-round residents with thin, scanty fur. In the winter, bison have a shaggy coat that they shed in the summer.
Buffalos don’t eat meat and graze on vegetation during the day. Bison are also vegetarian nomads, and grass makes up 93% of their diet.

The primary physical distinction between bison and buffalo is that the former is bigger, heavier, and has a giant head. The shaggy fur on bison also thickens during winter, especially around their head and neck, and they have a prominent shoulder hump.

Bison have shorter, thinner horns that grow directly from the top of their heads and only slightly curl, whereas buffalo have longer, more prominent horns that project from the side of their heads for many feet.

Only relatively limited areas of Eastern Europe and North America are home to bison. In comparison to bison, buffalo are more numerous in the wild and are native to Asia and Africa.

Thank you for reading this article on the Bison vs. Buffalo! There’s a wide variety of animals that seem similar on a surface level but upon a closer look, they’re vastly different. Two such animals are the Hornet vs. Wasp.

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