Buffaloes are large bovines with incredible horns and powerful bodies. They are responsible for 200 human deaths a year, but even though they kill humans, they don’t eat them. This begs the question, what do buffalo eat?
Let’s take a look at a buffalo’s diet to find out what they eat, where they find it, and if they have four stomachs.
What Is a Buffalo?
Before we find out all about a buffalo’s eating habits, let’s discover what buffalo are, because this will help explain why they eat certain foods.
Old-world buffalo are native to Africa and Asia. There are two species of buffalo in the Bovidae family. They are the African cape buffalo and the Asian water buffalo. The large ‘buffalo’ of North America are bison, which are part of the Bovidae family, but a different species to buffalo. When the first settlers arrived in the States, they called the bison buffalo because they appeared similar.
African buffalo are large. They weigh up to 2,000 lbs and live on the grasslands, swamps, savannas, subtropical forests, and wetlands of Africa. They stand five feet tall at the shoulder and reach seven feet from nose to tail tip. There are four known species:
- Cape buffalo – the largest and most common
- West Africa savanna buffalo
- Central Africa savanna buffalo
- Forest buffalo
Asian water buffalo are even larger; they weigh up to 2650 lbs! As their name suggests, they live in marshlands and rivers of Asia and have extra wide hooves to prevent sinking in muddy river beds.
Water buffalo are domesticated, but cape buffalo are wild. Humans have never managed to domesticate African buffalo because they are aggressive enough to cause fatalities.
What Do Buffalo Eat?
All buffalo species eat grass, weeds, sedges (grass-like plants), herbs, and tree leaves. In lean times, they eat mosses, lichens, and tree bark. Buffalo do not eat meat. They are vegetarians.
Buffalo roam and forage the African grasslands, savannas, riversides, and forests, constantly grazing as they move around for 9-11 hours each day. Their nomadic existence takes them on grazing trips up to 12 miles from an established watering hole.
As well as grass, sedges, and plant shoots, buffaloes need a lot of water. They drink twice a day, gulping down 30-40 liters per day. They are not able to tolerate long spells without drinking, so they forage around rivers and watering holes.
Water buffalo eat grass and sedge too, but because they spend more time in the water, they also eat aquatic plants.
North American bison (which are sometimes called buffalo) also eat grasses, sedges, and leaves. When winter covers the land in the snow, bison use their powerful necks to shift snowfall and reach the grass beneath.
Buffalo Have Four Stomachs (Sort of!)
Buffalo are ruminants that have developed a special way to digest large amounts of roughage. A buffalo’s digestive system is complex, so it can extract maximum nutrients from vegetation. Buffaloes digest their food using four stomach compartments!
Here’s how a buffalo copes with its tough vegetation diet.
Buffalo have long tongues that wrap around grass tufts and wide incisor teeth to briefly chew before rapidly swallowing. This helps them eat faster than other grazing animals. Buffaloes are not picky eaters, so they mow a section of grassland, then move on, leaving more specific grazers like zebras to pick out individual plants.
After swallowing a plant tuft, this is what happens:
- Rumen – the first stomach chamber begins to break down grasses.
- Reticulum – partially digested grasses mix with saliva and are pushed back into the buffalo’s mouth for extra chewing. That’s called ‘chewing the cud.’ When a buffalo is chewing the cud, it looks as if it’s enjoying chewing gum! Buffalo chew cud when they are resting.
- Omasum – In the third chamber, water is absorbed from the re-swallowed cud.
- Abomasum – the fourth chamber finally digests the grasses and moves waste into the bowels.
So when people say ruminants have four stomachs, they are partially correct! Ruminants like buffalo and cows have one stomach, but it has four individual chambers, each with its specific function.
During the Dry Season
African dry seasons mean little rainfall and, as a result, little fresh green grass and sedge for buffalo herds to eat. In the dry season, they eat dry leaves and stems, dried grass, moss, and lichen.
Mosses are non-flowering plants without roots, and lichen is formed from fungus and an alga. Both moss and lichen usually grow on trees and rocks, and they form a life-giving food source in harsh environments for many animals. For example, in snow-covered arctic regions, reindeer spend winter surviving on lichens.
In the dry seasons, buffalo cover greater distances looking for food, and they eat their less favored grass species. This article from the African Journal of Wildlife Research explains what grasses are available in various locations and how this explains buffalo migration habits.
In short, buffalo will eat whatever greenery they can find in the dry season. They are not picky eaters, which is why they are such a successful species. Experts estimate there are half a million buffalo in Africa. They are a species of the least concern.
What Do Buffalo Calves Eat
Buffaloes bear live young after 9-11 months gestation, which are called calves. A female buffalo gives birth once every two to three years.
Calves drink their mother’s milk for the first 6-18 months of their lives and remain by their mother’s side until they are at least two years old. Buffalo calves are heavily predated by lions, so they need protection from the herd.
Calves will nibble on grass and sedge with the herd after a few months, gradually replacing their mother’s milk with more roughage as they mature.
What Can’t Buffalo Eat?
Buffalo don’t eat meat, and there are very few, if any, vegetation types they won’t eat. These magnificent animals are very tough and capable of surviving very little.
What Eats Buffalo?
Buffalo are wild animals and one of the few bovines that haven’t been domesticated due to their unpredictable and aggressive nature. Some estimates suggest they kill over 200 humans every year, which has earned them the nickname of ‘the black death’ or ‘widow-maker’.
Despite this frightening reputation, buffalo are prey animals.
Predators are lions, hyenas, and crocodiles. Lion and hyena pack hunters can take down fully grown adult buffalo, but they usually pick out old or young buffalo as easier kills. Crocodiles lunge at small buffalo from the water and succeed by drowning them.
However, buffalo do not fall prey to predators without a fight. The herd will protect its members, shielding the sick and young from hunters by lashing out with their formidable legs. Buffalo has been observed rescuing herd members and trampling to death lions who have killed one of their group. A charging buffalo can reach up to 37 miles per hour and with 2,000 lbs of weight behind it, is easily capable of dealing a deathly blow to any predator.
Buffalo herds number 50 to 500 members, and they will temporarily merge to form “super herds” of thousands if predators are close and they feel threatened.
Humans are another buffalo predator. Due to their large size and aggressive tendencies, they are the target of trophy hunters who class them as one of the Big 5 Game. The other four are lion, leopard, elephant, and rhinoceros.
Recap: What Does Buffalo Eat?
Let’s recap our question: “What do buffalo eat?”
Buffaloes eat grass and sedge plants as their primary diet, but they graze on all types of greenery, including tree shoots, leaves, and herbs. In the dry season, when food is scarce, buffalo herds travel miles daily, grazing and foraging. They will eat tree bark, moss, and lichens during lean times to supplement their mostly grass diet.
Buffalo calves drink their mother’s milk for 6-18 months, supplementing it with grass and sedge as they mature. By two years old, buffalo calves are weaned members of the herd, and the mother will give birth again.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © David Havel/Shutterstock.com
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