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What is the Difference between Bison vs. Buffalo

bison
Side profile close up of an American bison, also known as buffalo, with its tongue sticking out in Yellowstone National Park. Image by ruhuntn@hotmail.com via depositphotos.com

The terms buffalo and Bison are often used interchangeably. However they actually refer to two distinct species. Each species differs significantly in appearance and habitat. However both species play an important role in the ecosystem.

North America

Buffalo in the grass during safari in Serengeti National Park in Tanzani.
Buffalo in the grass during safari in Serengeti National Park in Tanzani. Image by danmir12 via Depositphotos

The most notable difference between bison and buffalo populations are their geographic distribution. Bison are found primarily in North America. Two main species exist. The American bison (Bison bison) inhabits the United States, Canada and Mexico, while the European bison, or wisent (Bison bonasus) inhabits parts of Europe.

African and Asia

Portrait of an African or Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer), Mokala National park, South Africa. Image by EcoPic via Depositphotos

Buffalo inhabit Africa and Asia. The African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) are native to sub-Saharan Africa. While the water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is a domesticated buffalo which serves as an important part of agriculture in countries such as India, China and throughout Southeast Asia.

Physical Differences

European bison (Bison bonasus).
European bison (Bison bonasus). Image by bereta via Depositphotos

Bison are characterized by their large heads and hump. Their shaggy fur coat is also noticeably different to buffalo. Buffalo have larger horns than bison. Water buffalo in particular grow very large horns. Buffalo do not have the pronounced hump as the bison do.

Conservation status

Herd of the American bisons in the spring steppe
Herd of the American bisons in the spring steppe. Image by anmbph via Depositphotos

Both buffalo and bison face threats due to habitat loss and hunting. The American bison was hunted to near extinction in the 19th century, however conservation efforts have helped revive some populations. The European bison also faced extinction in the wild. Conservation efforts have helped reintroduce them in several areas. The African buffalo is protected in many conservation areas in Africa. While the water buffalo’s domesticated status provides it with a certain buffer against extinction.

Social Structure of Bison

American Bison.
American Bison. Image by dmbaker via Depositphotos

The American Bison form herds that change in size and composition according to season. During mating season the size of these herds increase because males join the herds to compete for mates. European Bison form smaller herds which are led by older females. The males tend to be solitary.

Social Structure of Buffalos

Wildlife in Europe. Bison herd in the autumn forest, sunny scene with big brown animal in the nature habitat, yellow leaves on the trees, Bialowieza NP, Poland.
Wildlife in Europe. Bison herd in the autumn forest, sunny scene with big brown animal in the nature habitat, yellow leaves on the trees, Bialowieza NP, Poland. Image by OndrejProsicky via Depositphotos

African buffalos live in much larger herds. These herds can number in the thousands. They are highly social and often subdivided into smaller family groups that are led by females. Water buffalo form large herds but are smaller in size compared to the Cape or African Buffalo.

Conclusion – Buffalo and Bison

Buffalo in the veld.
Buffalo in the veld. Image by 2630ben via Depositphotos

Both buffalo and bison play important roles in their ecosystems. Unfortunately, they are both threatened by habitat loss and historical hunting. Conservation efforts have although been successful and populations are on the rise! Now you know how to differentiate between a buffalo and bison.

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