Bison vs. Buffalo: Do You Know the Difference?

by Three Bears Lodge on June 18, 2010 Category: Did You Know?

If you’re looking for the home where the buffalo roam, you’d better save up for a plane ticket to Africa or southern Asia. We’ve all grown up hearing time and again the colorful tales of our traditional American history: pioneers striking out for the West, wagon trains, Lewis and Clark, the Oregon Trail, Native American tribes, and massive herds of buffalo- or was it bison?

Though we use the names interchangeably in the U.S., the shaggy beasts that traditionally roamed our continent’s plains are not buffalo, but another member of the Bovidae family, called bison. French fur trappers of the early 1600s referred to these animal as les bœufs, meaning oxen, which is believed to be the origin for our usage of the word “buffalo.” The word “bison,” similarly meaning ‘ox-like animal’ in Greek, was introduced in the late 1700s to distinguish these animals from the true buffalo of Asia and Africa. Bison is the correct name of these massive beasts that inhabit North America and Europe.

The True Buffalo

Asian Water Buffalo

Asian Water Buffalo

There are two types of true buffalo in the world. The first is the water buffalo, which resides in southern Asian countries such as Thailand, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. The second is the African cape buffalo, which lives in the wild in most of the non-desert land of Africa. Water buffalo, African cape buffalo, and the American Bison all come from the same scientific family and subfamily, but vary considerably in their appearance and behavior.

African Water Buffalo

African Water Buffalo

Water buffalo can grow to almost 10 feet long from nose to tail and almost 7 feet tall. They have long horns that curve backwards, and weigh about two and a half tons. African cape buffalo are slightly smaller, about five and a half feet tall, around 11 feet long and weigh anywhere from 1 to 2 tons, and tend to sport horns that curve upwards and in. While wild African cape buffalo are not considered an endangered species, the wild water buffalo population of Asia is dwindling every year, with less than 4,000 estimated to live in the wild. The water buffalo thrives in domesticated numbers, much like cattle; conversely, the volatile, ill-tempered African buffalo doesn’t seem to be suited for the tame life.

The American Bison

American Bison

American Bison

The iconic bison of American folklore is actually quite different from its cousins across the ocean. American bison are far less cattle-like in appearance, though technically they are more closely related to livestock than true buffalo. They are intimidating beasts, with a broad, high hump above their muscular shoulders, culminating in a massive, shaggy head that is crowned with a pair of short curved horns. The bison’s size is formidable as well, ranging up to six and a half feet tall, ten feet long, and weighing over two tons.

There is another closely-related species of bison known as the European Bison, which look very similar to the American bison. Their differences are primarily anatomical, such as differing rib counts and vertebrae, however they also have slight differences in horn shape, coat, and stature.

When American bison roamed the plains freely they were said to rival the brown bear as the most dangerous animal one could encounter in the North American wilderness. But despite their naturally fearsome appearance, American bison were nearly hunted to extinction by Western settlers in the 19th and early 20th century. The population rebounded only as a result of the concerted efforts of worried conservationists.

Bison in America Today

Many of the bison in captivity today are bred solely for their meat. It is estimated by the American Bison Society that of the nearly 500,000 bison currently repopulated in North America, as few as 20-30,000 are under the supervision of conservation groups. There have been a number of efforts recently to reintroduce American bison throughout the country to large open spaces. Nearly 100 bison are planned for release into the Alaskan interior in 2011. On a contained scale bison have been reintroduced to a number of plains states such as Iowa and Kansas as well as areas in Canada and Mexico.

While you won’t find bison inside Mount Rainier National Park, there are ample opportunities to view them at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, located a short drive from our Ashford WA cabins. Imagine coming within mere yards of animals that have supported entire native civilizations; it’s all part of the Northwest experience, a rare chance to connect with a living piece of history.

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