Bison vs Buffalo: 6 Key Differences

Written by Heather Hall
Updated: October 25, 2023
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Key Points

  • Bison and buffalo are often confused, especially in North America.
  • A key difference between bison and buffalo is the shoulder shape and horn length.
  • While Buffalo are found in Asia and Africa, Bison live in North America.

Are bison and buffalo the same? Well, when settlers first visited the new world and witnessed bison, they thought they looked like the Cape buffalo and water buffalo from other parts of the world, so they called them buffalo, and this misnomer continues to this today.

However, buffalo (Syncerus caffer) and bison (Bison bison) are two entirely different animal species. They are both members of the cow family. What is the real difference between bison and buffalo?

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To begin with, bison have larger heads and shoulders, paired with much shorter horns, while buffalo have more proportionate head and shoulders, and much larger, more curved horns.

Comparing Buffalo vs Bison

Tallest Animals: American Bison

Bison are larger and faster than buffalo

©O.S. Fisher/Shutterstock.com

BisonBuffalo
SizeWeight: 2,200lbs -2,500lbs
Height: 5ft-6ft
Weight: 1,300lbs – 2,000lbs
Height: 4ft – 4.5ft
Speed and Movement Type35 mph30 mph
Horns– Shorthorns reaching 2ft  – Long horns that grow 6ft horizontally and then curl up another 2-3ft
Senses– Poor eyesight as they are nearsighted
– Powerful sense of smell that can locate animals more than a mile away
– Great sense of hearing
– Great sense of smell
– Very good eyesight
– Excellent sense of hearing
Defenses– Vast body size
– High speed
– Massive body
– Speed
Offensive Capabilities– Trampling
– Ramming with horns    
– Can trample and stomp on other creatures
– Uses horns to gore enemies    
Are bison and buffalo the same? No! Bison and buffalo are entirely different species.

The easiest way to show the difference between buffalo and bison is to make a size comparison between the two. Though water buffalo are the heaviest at nearly 2700 pounds, a typical bison is around 12 feet from head to tail, weighing in at about 2200 pounds, while a water buffalo is only about nine feet in length.

Additionally, Bison have larger humps on their shoulders and larger heads than buffalo do. They also have long beards like goats as well as thick coats that they shed during the spring and early parts of the summer. Another good way to tell the difference between bison and buffalo is to take a look at its horns.

The Cape buffalo is 11 feet long but usually weighs just under a ton. Bulls from both species of bison are about six feet high, while buffalo of both types are closer to four or five feet.

Types of Bison and Buffalo

World's Scariest Animal: Cape Buffalo

A Cape buffalo is a large, dangerous creature that lives in Africa.

©PACO COMO/Shutterstock.com

Though we will mainly focus on the American Bison and the African Buffalo, there are three species of bison buffalo and also three types of bison. They live in different parts of the world and have some morphological differences as a result.

Generally speaking, though, it’s clear that bison and buffalo are highly different and rather easy to tell apart when you are looking at their most noticeable differences.

We are going to start exploring the different types of buffalo by looking at their three species.

African/Cape (Syncerus caffer)

Found all over the continent of Africa, the Cape species have broad, curling horns that cover much of the tops of their heads.

Asian water (Bubalus arnee)

Water buffalo with calf gazing in the paddy field in Manipur, India

Water buffalo with calf gazing in the paddy field in Manipur, India

©Worchi Zingkhai/Shutterstock.com

This animal, which closely resembles a domestic cow, save for its horns, is found primarily in India and is considered endangered.

Domestic water (Bubalus bubalis)

These smaller species are found in China and other parts of Asia.

It’s also important to look at the different types of bison that exist in the world today. Interestingly, bison are found in North America and parts of Europe.

American

This North American animal has two subspecies.

Plains (Bison bison)

These animals are found mostly on the American prairie.

Wood (Bison bison athbascae)

This species is found in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska.

European Bison

European bison were extinct in the wild but have been reintroduced with success.

©Szczepan Klejbuk/Shutterstock.com

European (Bison bonasus)

This species was extinct in the wild, but was bred in captivity and reintroduced across Europe in the late 20th century.

BisonBuffalo
Size2,200 to 2,500 lbs.1,300 to 2,000 lbs.
Lifespan15 to 20 years15 to 25 years
HabitatGrasslands, prairies, forestsWoodland, grass pastures, marshes
SpeciesAmerican bison in North America.
European bison in Europe.
African buffalo and Water Buffalo.
BodyLarge heads and a shoulder humpLarger horns and no shoulder hump

The 6 Key Differences Between Bison and Buffalo

Two wood bison bulls fighting each other in the snow.

Bison are larger, heavier, and have thicker fur than buffalo.

©massimofusaro/Shutterstock.com

The main physical difference between bison and buffalo is that bison are larger, heavier, and have bigger heads than buffalo. Bison also have a large shoulder hump and a shaggy fur coat that grows thick in the winter, especially around their head and neck.

 Buffalo has large, pronounced horns that extend from the side of their head for several feet and then curl up, but bison have shorter, thinner horns that grow directly from the top of their head and slightly curl.  

Bison are exclusively located in North America and very small parts of Eastern Europe where they were bred and released into the wild after being extinct. Buffalo live in Africa and Asia and have larger numbers in the wild compared with bison.

bison vs buffalo
bison vs buffalo

Bison vs Buffalo: Location

Buffaloes are found in Asia and Africa. However, Bison are found in North America and Europe. That means bison deal with colder weather and need thicker fur than buffalo.

Bison vs Buffalo: Head and shoulders

Bison have massive heads and a large shoulder hump. Buffalo heads are much more proportionate to their bodies and they have no hump.

Bison vs Buffalo: Body shape

The difference between buffalo and bison in the shape of their bodies is that the Buffalo has fairly straight backs, with necks that extend up at an angle like most quadrupeds. Because of their huge heads and large shoulder humps, bison have much larger fronts, and their backs appear to slope downward from shoulder to rump.

Bison vs Buffalo: Horns

The horn comparison must include both Asian and African buffalo, as well as bison. Bison all have short, relatively slender horns that curve out of their heads, a couple of inches above their eyes. Water buffalo have wider horns that grow sideways out of their heads before curving up, with spans that can reach up to six feet. African buffalo have very wide horns that typically cover the top of their heads and resemble massive handlebar mustaches.

Bison vs Buffalo: Fur

Buffalo has thin, sparse fur that they keep year-round. Bison have a shaggy winter coat that they shed in the summer months. The fur of these animals makes it easy to tell the two apart.

Bison vs Buffalo: Size

For the most part, bison are longer, taller, and heavier than buffalo. African buffalo are smaller in all three ways, though Asian water buffalo are actually heavier than both, coming in at nearly 3000 pounds.

These are the key differences between bison and buffalo, so it should be much easier to recognize how each creature is different from the others.

Summary: Difference Between Buffalo and Bison

CharacteristicBuffaloBison
SizeHeavierLonger, taller
LocationAsia, AfricaEurope, North America
Body ShapeStraight back,
quadruped neck extension
Larger front-to-back ratio
Shoulders/headProportionate, no humpMassive head, shoulder hump
HornsWide, curvingRelatively slender
FurThinHeavy, shed in warmer months

Bonus: The Bisons Great Comeback

It is estimated that as many as 60 million American bison roamed the grasslands and plains of North America during the 19th century. Always a part of early American life, the bison was not only a spiritual animal for Native American people – but an important part of their livelihood. Every part of the animal was used: hides constructed shields, saddles, and moccasins, hair became ropes and stuffing for pillows and warm robes. Teepees, cooking vessels, and much more were made from the animal’s remains, and their meat provided food.

Yellowstone National Park became the first buffalo refuge and was instrumental in saving it from extinction.

©Michael Hinkle/Shutterstock.com

Europeans saw the potential wealth in buffalo hides and proceeded to kill the animals in great numbers. The government encouraged buffalo slaughter to confine natives to smaller areas and compel them to abandon their nomadic customs. Railroad companies hired buffalo hunters to kill the animals and farmers brought domestic cattle that spread diseases to the remaining herds.

The great slaughter brought the number of buffalo in the United States from 60 million to 300. By the time Yellowstone National Park became a refuge – there were only 23 bison left! Thankfully, a few ranchers gathered remnants of the existing herds to save the species from extinction. In 1905 the director of the New York Zoological Park (now the Bronx Zoo), William T. Hornaday, started the American Bison Society and a breeding program to save the animals using the animals saved by the ranchers. With the help of Theodore Roosevelt and other members of the society – as well as officials from several states and tribal nations – the society was able to bring the bison back from the brink of extinction.

There are currently 500,000 bison in the U.S. today including 5,000 in Yellowstone. Had it not been for a few individuals working with tribes, states, and the Interior Department, the bison would be extinct today.

The photo featured at the top of this post is ©


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About the Author

Heather Hall is a writer at A-Z Animals, where her primary focus is on plants and animals. Heather has been writing and editing since 2012 and holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture. As a resident of the Pacific Northwest, Heather enjoys hiking, gardening, and trail running through the mountains with her dogs.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Is a Bison the same thing as a Buffalo?

No, buffalo and bison are different species, though they are both in the cow family.

What's the difference between a Bison and a Buffalo?

Buffalo are smaller and have larger horns compared to their head size. Bison are only found in North America.

Is Bison another name for Buffalo?

Technically, no. Though the names of these two species are often used interchangeably in North America, they are not the same animal.

Why do we call bison buffalo?

When the first travelers came to North America, they thought the bison here resembled the buffalo back in other parts of the world, so that is what they called them. As for why we still call them that today, it may have something to do with the popular old western song “Home on the Range.”

Is a bison larger than a buffalo?

Yes, a side-by-side comparison shows that a bison is generally larger than a buffalo, particularly through the head and shoulders. They are also longer.

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