- 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.
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
|Weight: 2,200lbs -2,500lbs
|Weight: 1,300lbs – 2,000lbs
Height: 4ft – 4.5ft
|Speed and Movement Type
|– Shorthorns reaching 2ft
|– Long horns that grow 6ft horizontally and then curl up another 2-3ft
|– 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
|– Vast body size
– High speed
|– Massive body
– Ramming with horns
|– Can trample and stomp on other creatures
– Uses horns to gore enemies
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
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)
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)
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.
This North American animal has two subspecies.
Plains (Bison bison)
These animals are found mostly on the American prairie.
Wood (Bison bison athbascae)
European (Bison bonasus)
This species was extinct in the wild, but was bred in captivity and reintroduced across Europe in the late 20th century.
|2,200 to 2,500 lbs.
|1,300 to 2,000 lbs.
|15 to 20 years
|15 to 25 years
|Grasslands, prairies, forests
|Woodland, grass pastures, marshes
|American bison in North America.
European bison in Europe.
|African buffalo and Water Buffalo.
|Large heads and a shoulder hump
|Larger horns and no shoulder hump
The 6 Key Differences Between Bison and Buffalo
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: Location
Bison vs Buffalo: Head and shoulders
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
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
|Europe, North America
quadruped neck extension
|Larger front-to-back ratio
|Proportionate, no hump
|Massive head, shoulder hump
|Heavy, 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.
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 ©
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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