What's the Difference Between Bison and Buffalo?

Though their names are often used interchangeably, bison and buffalo differ widely.

American bison standing in long golden grass
American bison standing in the grass.

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Never mind what the unofficial anthem of the American West says about buffalo roaming—this type of bovid is not found on U.S. soil. What we have stateside, making up the best-known herds in Yellowstone National Park and on Catalina Island, are bison.

Though bison are sometimes colloquially called buffalo, the two are biologically different, unconnected in their ranges, and can be told apart by a few distinguishing physical features. Here's everything you need to know about the two oft-confused families of ancient grazing giants.

Key Differences

  • Range: Wild American bison occur only in North America, European bison in Europe, water buffalo in Asia, and African buffalo in Africa.
  • Size: Most buffalo species are larger than bison species—1,900 to 2,600 pounds versus 1,600 to 2,000 pounds.
  • Horns: Bison have short and stubby horns whereas buffalo's are long and curvy.
  • Beard: Only bison have long, shaggy beards.
  • Shoulder hump: Only bison have a distinctive shoulder hump, the American bison's more prominent than the European bison's.

Buffalo and Bison Classification

Buffalo and bison belong to the tribe Bovini, which includes medium to massive animals of the Bovidae family. The Bovidae family also includes antelopes, gazelles, goats, and sheep.

While a number of Bovini species are commonly called buffalo or bison (the anoa a "dwarf buffalo" and the gaur "Indian bison," for example), there are only four true bison and buffalo species.

American Bison

Close-up of American bison walking on a road in Yellowstone

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American bison (Bison bison) roam in Yellowstone and are portrayed on the National Park Service's arrowhead emblem and the U.S. Department of the Interior's seal. They're the heaviest land animals in North America and, since 2016, the U.S.'s national mammal, joining the patriotic ranks of its national bird, the bald eagle.

Centuries ago, American bison inhabited large swaths of North America—the "great bison belt" extending from Alaska to Florida and east to New York. They now have a patchy range thanks to commercial hunting, slaughter, and diseases introduced by domestic cattle during the late 1800s. Today, wild bison occur sparsely throughout Canada and Alaska, and in parts of the West, including Idaho, Montana, Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and even on California's Catalina Island, though that herd was introduced.

The Yellowstone herd is the largest in the country, containing anywhere between 2,300 and 5,500 individuals depending on the year. The IUCN estimates there are 11,248 to 13,123 mature, wild American bison in North America. The species is considered near threatened due to "genetic manipulation of commercial bison for market traits" and culling to prevent the spread of disease. Besides wild populations, there are also domesticated American bison that are grown for meat.

European Bison

European bison standing to the side on grassy hillside

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American bison and European bison, aka wisent, are the only two extant species of bison in the world. European bison (Bison bonasus), Europe's largest land animals, share many similarities with their American counterparts but instead are found in Germany, Poland, Belarus, Switzerland, and Lithuania. The largest population occurs on the border of Poland and Belarus, in the Bialowieża Primeval Forest.

As with American bison, European bison were hunted to near extinction before the 20th century. The scientist-led Society for the Protection of the European Bison (succeeded by the European Bison Friends Society) was founded in 1922 and has since played a major role in the species' recovery. European bison have been bumped from an endangered species to near threatened on IUCN's Red List. At the time of the last assessment, in 2020, there were believed to be 2,518 mature individuals remaining.

Water Buffalo

Rice farmer putting child on a water buffalo in Thailand

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Wild water buffalo (Bubalus arnee) inhabit wetlands, grasslands, forest, and savanna biomes in Asia—namely India, Nepal, Bhutan, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. They are known to wallow in mud to keep cool in high Asiatic temperatures.

While bison are happy to graze on dry plains, water buffalo prefer a wet diet of aquatic plants. They will even graze with their heads underwater, ripping up reeds and invasive grasses from the bottom of swamps and other waterlogged areas.

Water buffalo are widely used as "living tractors" in the agricultural industry. Wild populations are considered endangered—2,500 mature individuals and decreasing—partially because of domestication. Wild populations compete and often interbreed with domestic populations. They also face threats from hunting and disease from cattle.

African Buffalo

African buffalo standing in meadow looking at camera

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The two remaining extant buffalo species belong to different genera—the water buffalo to Bubalus and the African buffalo to Syncerus. African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) occur only in Africa.

The IUCN describes four subspecies of African buffalo: forest, West African savanna, Central African savanna, and Cape buffalo. Together, they are distributed throughout parts of sub-Saharan Africa, including in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The species is near threatened; an estimated 398,000 to 401,000 mature individuals are left.

How to Tell the Difference Between Buffalo and Bison

You can tell a buffalo from a bison just by looking at it, geographic range aside. If it has a big hump on its shoulder, stubby horns, and a thick beard and coat, it's a bison. If it looks to have finer, black hair and long horns that curl upward, it's a buffalo. When comparing the two, you'll notice that a bison's head is much larger.

As for telling the difference between bison species, that's a bit trickier. The American bison typically has more hair, and its head hangs lower than the European bison's because it grazes more. The water buffalo and African buffalo are easier to tell apart by their horns: the former's curve up and inward while the latter's curl around like a handlebar mustache.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Why are bison sometimes called buffalo?

    American bison were given the moniker buffalo when French fur trappers came to work in the U.S. in the 1600s. The name comes from "boeuf," meaning "beef."

  • Which is in Yellowstone, buffalo or bison?

    The Yellowstone herd is the largest and probably the oldest American bison herd in the U.S., today containing up to 5,500 individuals.

  • Can bison and buffalo breed with cattle?

    Bison and buffalo can and do mate with cattle. The result is "beefalo," a domesticated livestock species recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Beefalo are sterile and bred for meat.

View Article Sources
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  4. Plumb, G., R. Kowalczyk, and J.A. Hernandez-Blanco. "Bison bonasus." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2020: e.T2814A45156279. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T2814A45156279.en

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  6. IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group. "Syncerus caffer." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2019: e.T21251A50195031. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2019-1.RLTS.T21251A50195031.en

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