Bison or Buffalo: Which is which?
Two very different animals. One common misconception.
What’s in a name? Well, a lot. Especially if you’re talking about the difference between a bison and a buffalo. The two names have often been used interchangeably to refer to the same animal. Except they aren’t the same animal at all. In fact, they don’t even live on the same continent. Never have. Probably never will. (Unless you’re talking about Buffalo, the city, which is an entirely different conversation.) So is it bison or buffalo? What’s the difference? And how did everything get so mixed up in the first place?
So what are the differences between a bison and a buffalo?
There are a lot of differences between a bison and a buffalo. Most notably, their physical appearance. Take a look at the two images below. The first one is a bison – one of our strong, young bulls actually.
And this second one is an African Water Buffalo. (Photo courtesy of wikipedia.)
The physical differences between the animals are quite obvious when you look at them side-by-side like this. Bison are much larger in size and have a bulky hump and enormous head. And while bison have small sharp horns, buffalo horns are much more dramatic, almost resembling a wig George Washington would don! Bison are also much faster than buffalo. Not that we’d want to race either of them.
Their fur or hair is also remarkably different. Bison have thick coats of fur and a very pronounced “beard” that loops around their ribcage. This insulation helps protect the bison against the cold North American winters. In contrast, the buffalo has a very short, thin layer of hair, perfect for the hotter, drier, African climate. Though bison and buffalo are both part of the Bovidae family (which also includes antelopes, cattle, sheep and goats), they are not genetically related to each other.
Which brings us to the geographical differences between the two species. While bison can be found across North America and in some areas of Europe (known as the European Bison or Wisent), buffalo are found in Africa and Asia – contrary to the popular “Home on the range” song America grew up with. Population numbers are quite different as well – there are roughly 500, 000 bison these days compared to 150 million buffalo.
The great mix-up:
According to the book, The American Buffalo in Transition, by J. Albert Rorabacher, the confusion between the two animals began when European explorers first encountered bison. In the seventeenth century, French explorers in North America referred to this strange new species as “les boeufs”, meaning oxen or beeves. The English, who arrived later, changed the pronunciation to “la buff”. As time went on, the name for this majestic animal continued changing from “buffle” to “buffler” to “buffillo,” until voilà, someone settled on buffalo. It stuck. So you know all those stories about buffalo roaming the Wild West? Yeah, those were bison.
And while we’ve never actually eaten buffalo, we’re pretty confident that bison are by far, the tastier species.
The American Buffalo in Transition, by J. Albert Rorabacher