European Bison vs American Bison: 4 Key Differences Explained

Written by Hannah Ward
Published: February 26, 2022
Image Credit Szczepan Klejbuk/Shutterstock.com
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Bison are large herbivorous mammals that are native to places such as North America and parts of Europe where they live predominantly in grasslands.  They live in herds and are characterized by their large, heavy bodies, humped shoulders, small horns, and unpredictable natures.  There are two species of bison – European and American – and they are incredibly similar to each other.  However, despite their similarities, there are quite a lot of differences between them, with some more subtle than others.  So join us as we discover all of the key differences between European bison and American bison.

Comparing American Bison vs European Bison

European Bison  vs American Bison
While similar, there are size, appearance, and bone structure differences between American and European Bison.

A-Z-Animals.com

European bison (Bison bonasus) are the largest and heaviest land mammal in Europe.  There were formerly three subspecies, although only one (Bison bonasus bonasus) remains – the other two are now extinct.

American bison (Bison bison) are the heaviest and longest animal in North America, but the second tallest after moose.  There are two subspecies of American bison – plains bison and wood bison.  Wood bison are generally the larger of the two and have a larger, more square hump.  However, getting back to the differences between American and European bison, there are some significant differences between them which make it easier to tell the two apart.

Check out the chart below to learn a few of the main differences.

American BisonEuropean Bison
LocationUS, Canada, Mexico, RussiaBelarus, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Switzerland
HabitatGrassland, scrubland, river valleysGrassland, deciduous and mixed forests
SizeWeight – 700 to 2,180 pounds
Height – 6ft 1in to 6ft 7in at the shoulder
Weight – 935 to 2,030 pounds
Height – 5ft 9in to 6ft 9in at the shoulder
Ribs1514
Lumbar Vertebrae45
DietGrazersBrowsers
HornsPoint more sideways and upwardsPoint more forwards
HairBody – more hairy than European
Tail – less hairy
Body – less hairy than American
Tail – more hairy
NoseFurther back than foreheadFurther forward than forehead
Head / NeckNaturally hands lower than EuropeanNaturally hands higher than American
FightingButting and chargingInterlock horns
TameabilityEasier to tame (also easier to breed with cattle)Difficult
PredatorsWolves, grizzly bearsHumans, wolves, bears

The 4 Key Differences Between European Bison and American Bison

The key differences between European and American bison include size, appearance, bone structure, and horns. American bison are generally larger and have an appearance that’s geared toward grazing while European bison browse. Also, the two species of bison have different numbers of ribs and lumbar vertebrae. Let’s dig into the main differences in more detail below.

European Bison vs American Bison: Size

Tallest Animals: American Bison
American Bison are heavier than European bison as well as being the heaviest land mammal in North America

O.S. Fisher/Shutterstock.com

One of the main differences between European and American bison is their size difference.  However, they are quite unique as American bison are the heavier of the two, while European bison are the taller of the two.  American bison weigh between 700 and 2,180 pounds, with the males being heavier than females.  They stand between 6ft 1ins and 6ft 7ins.  European bison weight between 935 and 2,030 pounds, again with the males being the heaviest.  Their height ranges between 5ft 9in and 6ft 9in at the shoulder.  The reason European bison tend to be taller than their American counterparts is because they have longer legs.

European Bison vs American Bison: Appearance

American Bison

Grey Mountain Photo/Shutterstock.com

There are several differences in the appearance and stance of European and American bison which set them apart.  For a start, American bison have a much hairier body than European bison, but their tail is less hairy.  The shape of their faces are different too as the nose of American bison sits further back than the forehead when the head is in a neutral position.  The opposite is true for European bison, whose nose is further forward than their forehead.

European and American bison also hold their heads differently, and this has an effect on their diet.  European bison naturally hold their head and neck higher than American bison, and they are browsers rather than grazers.  On the other hand, American bison hold their head and neck lower than European bison.  This suits their diet as they are grazers rather than browsers.

European Bison vs American Bison: Horns

European Bison

Szczepan Klejbuk/Shutterstock.com

Another distinctive difference between American and European bison is their horns.  The horns of the European bison point more forwards than those of the American bison which point more sideways and upwards.  The way that their horns point aids them in their favored method of fighting.  European bison generally fight by locking horns, and their forward-pointing horns favor this.  However, American bison prefer to fight by butting and charging.

European Bison vs American Bison: Bones

Animals in Belarus
European bison are not as hairy as American bison and also have horns that point more forward

Although it’s not a visual difference between the two, European and American bison have different numbers of ribs and lumbar vertebrae.  American bison have fifteen pairs of ribs while European bison only have fourteen.  Additionally, European bison have five lumbar vertebrae while American bison only have four.  In the case of the lumbar vertebrae, this difference is because in the American bison the first lumbar vertebrae has ribs attached to it.  This means that it is counted as an extrathoracic vertebrae instead of a lumbar vertebrate.

European Bison

Szczepan Klejbuk/Shutterstock.com
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About the Author

I have been writing professionally for several years with a focus on animals and wildlife. I love spending time in the outdoors and when not writing I can be found on the farm surrounded by horses, dogs, sheep, and pigs.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Can European and American bison cross breed?

Yes, European and American bison can cross breed, producing hybrid offspring.

How close did bison come to extinction?

Both American and European bison came extremely close to extinction – with European bison actually becoming extinct in the wild in the early twentieth century.  However, thanks to captive breeding programs they have recovered, although they no longer exist in many of the areas that they had previously roamed.  Additionally, through a combination of hunting and disease, there were only 541 American bison left in 1889, but the species has gradually recovered through a number of reintroductions.  However, although numbers are far better nowadays, both American and European bison are still officially classed as near threatened.

Are bison dangerous to humans?

Yes, bison can be extremely dangerous animals and are known to attack and charge at people even when unprovoked.  Despite their bulk, they can move incredibly fast and can easily outrun us humans.  In North America, American bison are some of the most dangerous animals in the national parks and often injure more people than bears.

Can bison cross breed with cattle?

Although all bison are large, unpredictable animals, American bison are generally easier to tame than European bison.  Due to their slightly better nature, they are also easier to crossbreed with cattle.  For a while, cross-breeding American bison bulls with female cattle was popular across ranches in the US.  However, as the resulting offspring didn’t show enough signs of hybrid vigor (desirable traits from both parents), the practice has largely stopped.  European cattle have also crossbred with cattle at times, but again, the practice has now mostly been abolished.

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