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Bison vs. Buffalo: 6 Key Differences

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key point

  • Bison and buffalo are often confused, especially in North America.
  • The main difference between bison and buffalo is the shoulder shape and horn length.
  • Buffalo live in Asia and Africa, while bison live in North America.

Are bison and buffalo the same? Well, when the settlers first visited the New World and saw bison, they thought they looked like Cape buffalo and water buffalo from other parts of the world, so they called them buffalo, a misnomer that continues to this day.

However, buffalo ( Syncerus caffer ) and bison ( Bison bison ) are two completely different animal species. They are all members of the dairy cow family. What's the real difference between bison and buffalo?

First, the bison has a larger head and shoulders with shorter horns, while the buffalo has a more symmetrical head and shoulders and larger, more curved horns.

Comparing Buffalo and Bison

tallest animal american bison
Bison are bigger and faster than buffalo

© OS Fisher/Shutterstock.com

bison buffalo
size Weight: 2,200 lbs – 2,500 lbs Height: 5' – 6' Weight: 1,300 lbs – 2,000 lbs Height: 4ft – 4.5ft
speed and movement type 35 mph 30 mph
trumpet – Shorthorns up to 2 feet – 6 feet long horizontally then curled 2-3 feet long
the senses – Poor vision due to myopia – Powerful sense of smell, can locate animals up to a mile away – Excellent hearing – Great sense of smell – Very good eyesight – Excellent hearing
defense – Huge size
– high speed
– huge body
– speed
offensive ability – Trampling – Hitting with a horn – Can trample and trample other creatures – Horn against enemies
Are bison and buffalo the same? No! Bison and buffalo are completely different species.

The easiest way to show the difference between buffalo and bison is to do a size comparison of the two. While buffaloes are the heaviest at nearly 2,700 pounds, a typical bison measures about 12 feet from head to tail and weighs about 2,200 pounds, while a buffalo is only about 9 feet long.

Also, the bison has larger humps on the shoulders and a larger head compared to the buffalo. They also have long goat-like beards, and thick coats that they shed in spring and early summer. Another good way to tell a bison from a buffalo is by looking at its horns.

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South African buffalo are 11 feet long but typically weigh less than a ton. Both bison bulls are about six feet tall, while both types of buffalo are closer to four or five feet tall.

Types of bison and buffalo

The scariest animal in the world: African buffalo
The Cape buffalo is a large and dangerous creature that lives in Africa.

©PACO COMO/Shutterstock.com

While we'll be focusing primarily on the American bison and the African buffalo, there are three species of buffalo and three species of bison. They live in different parts of the world, so there are some differences in morphology.

In general, though, it's clear that bison and buffalo are very different, and when you look at their most notable differences, they're easy to tell apart.

We'll start exploring the different types of buffalo by looking at three species of buffalo.

Africa/Cape Town ( Syncerus caffer )

Cape horn species are found across the African continent and have broad, curly horns that cover most of the top of their heads.

Asian water ( Bubalus arnee )

Buffalo and calf gaze at rice fields in Manipur, India
Buffalo and calf gaze at rice fields in Manipur, India

©Worchi Zingkhai/Shutterstock.com

The animal, which is very similar to the domestic cow except for its horns, is mainly found in India and is considered an endangered species.

Domestic water ( Bubalus bubalis )

These smaller species are found in China and other parts of Asia.

It's also important to look at the different types of bison that exist in the world today. Interestingly, bison are also found in North America and parts of Europe.

American

There are two subspecies of this North American animal.

Plains ( Bison bison )

These animals are mainly found on the American prairies.

Wood ( Bison bison athbascae )

This species is found in boreal forests of Canada and Alaska.

european bison
The European bison has become extinct in the wild, but has been successfully reintroduced.

©Szczepan Klejbuk/Shutterstock.com

Europe ( Bison bonasus )

The species became extinct in the wild, but was bred in captivity and reintroduced in Europe in the late 20th century.

bison buffalo
size 2,200 to 2,500 lbs. 1,300 to 2,000 lbs.
life 15 to 20 years 15 to 25 years old
Habitat Grassland, grassland, forest woodland, grassland, swamp
species North American bison.
European bison.
African buffalo and water buffalo.
Body big head and hump Larger horns, no shoulder humps

6 Key Differences Between Bison and Buffalo

Two bison bulls fighting each other in the snow.
Bison are larger, heavier and have thicker fur than buffalo.

© massimofusaro/Shutterstock.com

The main physical difference between bison and buffalo is that the bison is larger and heavier than the buffalo and has a larger head. Bison also have a large hump and a shaggy coat that becomes thick in winter, especially around their heads and necks.

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Buffaloes have large, pronounced horns that protrude several feet from the side of the head and curl up, but bison have shorter, thinner horns that grow directly from the top of the head and curl slightly.

Bison, found in only a tiny fraction of North America and Eastern Europe, were bred and released into the wild after they became extinct. Buffalo live in Africa and Asia and are more abundant in the wild than bison.

bison vs buffalo
bison vs buffalo

© AZ-Animals.com

Bison vs. Buffalo: Positions

Buffaloes are found in Asia and Africa. However, bison are found in both North America and Europe. This means that bison need thicker fur than buffalo to cope with colder weather.

Bison vs Buffalo: Head and Shoulders

Bison have huge heads and a large shoulder hump. The buffalo has a much better head-to-body ratio and lacks a hump.

Bison vs Buffalo: Size

The difference in body shape between buffalo and bison is that the back of the buffalo is fairly straight, with the neck extending upward at an angle like most quadrupeds. Due to their massive heads and broad shoulder humps, bison have a much larger front, and their backs seem to slope down from shoulders to rump.

Bison vs Buffalo: Horns

Horn comparisons must include Asian and African buffalo, as well as bison. Bison all have short, relatively slender horns that curve out from their heads a few inches above their eyes. Buffalo horns are wider, growing sideways from the head and then curving to spans of up to 6 feet. The horns of the African buffalo are very broad and often cover the top of the head, resembling giant handlebar whiskers.

Bison vs Buffalo: Fur

Buffaloes have sparse fur throughout the year. Bison have a shaggy winter coat that they shed in summer. The fur of these animals easily distinguishes the two.

Bison vs Buffalo: Size

For the most part, bison are longer, taller, and heavier than buffaloes. The African buffalo is smaller in all three dimensions, but the Asian buffalo is actually heavier than both, weighing nearly 3,000 pounds.

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These are the main differences between bison and buffalo, so it should be easier to identify how each animal differs from the other.

Summary: Difference Between Buffalo and Bison

feature buffalo bison
size heavier longer, higher
Place Asia, Africa Europe, North America
figure all the way back,
Quadruped Neck Stretch
greater front-to-back ratio
shoulders/head Well-proportioned, no hump huge head, shoulder hump
trumpet wide, curved relatively slender
fur Thin heavy, shedding in warmer months

great comeback for bison

It is estimated that as many as 60 million bison roamed the prairies and plains of North America during the 19th century. The bison has always been a part of early American life, not only as a spirit animal for Native Americans, but as an important part of their livelihood. Every part of the animal was used: leather for shields, saddles and moccasins, hair turned into rope, stuffed pillows and warm robes. Teepees, cooking utensils, and more were made from the remains of animals whose meat provided the food.

Yellowstone National Park became the first buffalo sanctuary and played a major role in saving it from extinction.

©Michael Hinkle/Shutterstock.com

Seeing the potential wealth of buffalo hides, Europeans began hunting the animals in large numbers. The government encouraged the slaughter of buffalo, confining the indigenous people to smaller areas and forcing them to abandon their nomadic pastoralism. Railroads hired buffalo hunters to kill the animals, and farmers brought in domestic cattle, spreading the disease to the remaining herds.

The massacre increased the number of buffalo in the United States from 60 million to 300. When Yellowstone National Park Becomes a Refuge – Only 23 Bison Left! Bison would be extinct today were it not for the cooperation of a few individuals with the tribe, state and Department of the Interior.

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bison vs buffalo
bison vs buffalo

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about the author

Heather Hall


I'm a freelance writer with 22 years of experience. I live in the Pacific Northwest surrounded by nature. When I do my daily runs, I often see herds of elk, deer, and bald eagles. I have two dogs that take me on hikes in the mountains where we see coyotes, black bears, and wild turkeys.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Are bison and buffalo the same thing?

No, buffalo and bison are different species, although they both belong to the family of cows.

What is the Difference Between Bison and Buffalo?

Compared to the size of its head, the buffalo is small in size but has large horns. Bison are only found in North America.

Is Bison another name for Buffalo?

Technically, no. Although the names of these two species are often used interchangeably in North America, they are not the same animal.

Why do we call bison buffalo?

When the first travelers came to North America, they thought the bison here were similar to those found in other parts of the world, so they called them that. As for why we still call them that today, it probably has something to do with the popular Old West song "Home on the Ranch."

Are bison bigger than buffalo?

Yes, a side-by-side comparison shows that bison are generally larger than buffalo, especially the head and shoulders. They are also longer.

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