Difference between Buffalo and Bison: A Detailed Examination

The terms “buffalo” and “bison” are frequently used interchangeably, causing confusion about these impressive animals. Despite some similarities, there are notable differences between buffaloes and bison. This article aims to explore the contrasts between these two magnificent creatures, providing insights into their characteristics, habitats, and cultural importance.

Difference between Buffalo and Bison


Delving into the world of majestic animals, we focus on two species often mistaken for one another – the buffalo and the bison. Dispelling the confusion surrounding their identities will give us a greater appreciation of biodiversity and the richness of our ecosystem.

Understanding Buffaloes and Bisons

Buffalo Species

Buffalo is a common name used for several species of large bovines. There are two primary types of buffalo: the African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) found in Africa and the water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) native to Asia.

Bison Species

On the other hand, bison refers to two primary species: the American bison (Bison bison) and the European bison (Bison bonasus). The American bison is often known as “bison” in North America.

Importance of Differentiating Between the Two Species

Understanding the differences between buffalo and bison is more than just a matter of semantics or pedantry. It is crucial for conservation efforts and ecological studies. Differentiating these species helps us comprehend each one’s unique role in the ecosystem and the specific threats they face, guiding conservation strategies to ensure their survival.

Physical Differences

Size Comparison of Buffalo and Bison

  1. Buffalo, particularly the African species, are among the largest bovines in the world. An adult African buffalo can reach a shoulder height of 1.7 meters and weigh up to 1,000 kg.
  2. Bison: In contrast, while shorter with a height of 1.5 to 1.8 meters at the shoulder, the American Bison can tip the scales at up to 1,200 kg, making it the heaviest terrestrial animal in North America.

Differences in Appearance: Coat, Horns, and Hump

  1. Buffaloes: African buffaloes are robust and powerful animals with distinctive curved horns. They have a stocky build, and their shoulder hump is less prominent compared to bison. Water buffaloes are larger and more massive than African buffaloes. They possess long, crescent-shaped horns that sweep backward. Buffalos horns span up to 2 meters from one tip to another.
  2. Bison: On the other hand, American bison are iconic creatures of the American plains. They have a massive head, a pronounced shoulder hump, and a thick fur coat. European bison are generally larger and heavier than their American counterparts. They have a distinctive shoulder hump and shorter, curvier horns. The bison also has a dense fur coat, which protects it from the harsh winters of North America, and its horns are much shorter, reaching only about 60 cm across.

Geographic Distribution

  1. Buffaloes are primarily found in Africa and Asia. African buffaloes inhabit various regions across the African continent, including grasslands, savannas, and forests. Water buffaloes are widespread in Asia, especially in countries like India, China, and Indonesia, where they are commonly domesticated.
  2. Bison, especially the American bison, used to inhabit extensive regions of North America, including the Great Plains. European bison are native to parts of Europe, with efforts made for their conservation and reintroduction in certain areas.

Behavioral Differences

  1. Buffalos are known for their sometimes aggressive behavior, especially when they perceive a threat. These creatures are extremely social beings, dwelling in vast herds that can consist of thousands of individuals. This social structure protects predators, as there is safety in numbers. Among them, African buffaloes are recognized as one of the most perilous animals in Africa.  Asian buffalos, or water buffalos, are more docile and are known to spend considerable time wallowing in water or mud, which helps regulate their body temperature and keeps parasites at bay.
  2. Bison, on the other hand, are generally less aggressive. They also live in herds, but these are usually smaller and divided by gender, with females and their offspring forming one group, and males another. During the mating season, these groups come together, and males display aggressive behaviors to compete for females. Like buffalos, bison protect their young and defend them vigorously. A distinctive trait of bison is their ability to run at high speeds, up to 55 km/h, despite their massive size. This agility, combined with their sturdy build and sharp horns, makes them formidable when facing predators or threats.

Diet and Feeding Habits

  1. Buffalos, inhabiting regions rich in water bodies, tend to have an extensive diet that includes grasses, herbs, shrubs, and even aquatic plants. They are well-known for their ability to consume and digest a higher proportion of coarse, fibrous material than most other herbivores due to their highly efficient digestive system.
  2. Bison primarily graze on grasses and sedges. Their feeding pattern is shaped by the changing seasons of their native North American plains. During winter, when the ground is covered in snow, they use their large heads and strong neck muscles to sweep away the snow and reach the dormant grass underneath. In summer, the bison feed on the fresh, green grasses, which are plentiful. These differences in diet between buffalo and bison are a testament to their adaptability and their capacity to thrive in their respective habitats.

Domestication and Farming

  1. Buffalos: The relationship between humans and these large bovine species extends thousands of years back, with domestication playing a crucial role in this coexistence. Asian or water buffalos have been domesticated for at least 5,000 years. The domestic water buffalo is primarily kept as a draught animal, particularly for plowing and other forms of tillage. They are also esteemed for their milk, which contains higher levels of fat and protein compared to that of dairy cattle.
  2. Bison have never been fully domesticated due to their unpredictable nature and temperament. However, their meat has become increasingly popular for its lower fat content compared to beef, leading to a rise in bison farming in North America. Despite this, bison farming practices aim to mimic the natural living conditions of the species, with large open spaces for grazing, and minimal human interaction, preserving their wild traits to the greatest extent possible.

Bison and Buffalo Conservation

  1. Buffalos, both African and Asian species, face different challenges. The African buffalo is classified as “Least Concern” by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) due to its widespread distribution and large population. Nevertheless, specific challenges like habitat destruction and hunting persist, presenting ongoing risks. The Asian buffalo, commonly known as the water buffalo, is even more vulnerable and classified as “Endangered.” Rapid habitat loss and hunting for meat and horns pose significant threats to this species, necessitating urgent conservation efforts.
  2. Bison: Unlike the buffalo, the American Bison’s conservation status is a success story of recovery. Once teetering on the brink of extinction due to mass slaughter in the 19th century, the American Bison is now classified as “Near Threatened” by the IUCN. This improvement is primarily due to robust conservation programs that have reintroduced bison to several of their former habitats. However, they still face threats, including habitat fragmentation and the risk of hybridization with domestic cattle, emphasizing the need for continued conservation efforts.

Bison vs. Buffalo in Popular Culture

  1. Buffalo: The Asian buffalo, or water buffalo, is often portrayed in Asian art, literature, and folklore, symbolizing hard work, strength, and patience due to its significant role in agriculture. The buffalo is considered a symbol of bravery and strength in Africa, often featured in cultural stories and proverbs.
  2. Bison: Contrarily, the American bison holds a sacred status in Native American culture, regarded as a symbol of abundance and manifesting in religious rituals, stories, and artwork. The bison’s image has permeated into mainstream American popular culture as well. It’s featured on the state flag of Wyoming, the National Park Service logo, and even as sports mascots. The bison’s symbolic value underscores its historical significance and enduring presence in American cultural identity.

Meat and Taste Difference

  1. Buffalo meat is a staple in many African and Asian countries. It’s known for its lean yet flavorful profile, offering a rich, slightly sweet taste. Moreover, it serves as a remarkable protein source, providing essential nutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamin B.
  2. Bison meat, alternatively, is gaining popularity in North America and beyond for its healthful qualities. It offers a robust, slightly sweet flavor that’s often compared to beef but with a lighter, more delicate texture. It’s lower in fat and cholesterol, higher in protein, and also rich in key nutrients. Thus, both buffalo and bison provide healthful and flavorful alternatives for those seeking to diversify their protein sources.

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Can bison and buffalo interbreed?

No, bison and buffalo are separate species and cannot interbreed. They belong to different genera.

Are buffalo and bison horns the same?

Buffalo and bison have different types of horns. Buffalo horns are generally longer and curved, while bison horns are shorter and curvier.

What is the largest buffalo species?

The largest buffalo species is the water buffalo, native to Asia.

Are there any other animals called “buffalo”?

Yes, the term “buffalo” is sometimes used for other animals, such as the “cape buffalo” (African buffalo) and the “American buffalo” (American bison).

Are bison and buffalo endangered?

While some buffalo species face conservation challenges, both the American bison and the European bison have seen population recovery and are not currently listed as endangered.


In conclusion, while bison and buffalo may be commonly mistaken due to their superficial resemblances, they are distinct species with unique characteristics, behaviors, and habitats. They play essential roles in their respective ecosystems and contribute to biodiversity. Despite the challenges these species face, conservation efforts have shown promising results, particularly in the case of the American Bison. As we continue to learn more about these magnificent creatures, it becomes increasingly clear that they are valuable as sources of nutrition and integral parts of our global ecosystem. Recognizing and honoring these distinctions is vital for their conservation and the ongoing harmony between humans and these magnificent creatures.

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