You can blame early European settlers of the Great Plains for all the confusion. They too were confused, calling the vast herds of large, hoofed animals “buffelo” due to their (somewhat) similar appearance to the creatures found in Africa and Asia. They were, in fact, bison.
Both the buffalo and bison are in the Bovidae family, which also includes other cloven-hoofed ruminants, like goats. The two main species of buffalo are the African or Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) and the endangered wild Asian water buffalo (Bubalus arnee). There’s also a domestic water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis), that is smaller than its wild cousin.
As for bison, the two main species are the American bison (Bison bison) and the European bison (Bison bonasus), which is mainly found in Poland, but is starting to make a comeback in very small numbers in other parts of Europe. There is also a distinctive northern subspecies of the American bison called the wood bison (Bison bison athabascae), native to Alaska and Canada.
Here are five distinct differences to help you distinguish between these big boys and girls of the grass-eating world.
1. Bison are Head and Shoulders Above The Buffalo
Bison have a large shoulder hump of pure muscle and a massive head that makes their hindquarters look smaller than their fronts. Both the Cape buffalo and water buffalo have smaller heads and shoulders in proportion to the rest of their bodies, giving them a more symmetrical appearance.
2. The Horns Have It
Both male and female Cape buffalo have large horns in the shape of a handlebar mustache that sweep up on the ends and can grow up to three or more feet across on males. The water buffalo trumps them all with its majestic horns that can have a six-foot span in both sexes. Bison horns of both sexes average around two feet.
3. Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow
Bison have a thick, shaggy coat that keeps them warm in the harsh winter weather of the Great Plains, which they shed in the hot summer months. Both the Cape buffalo and the water buffalo have a thinner coat that they don’t shed.
4. Hipster Beard
Bison would fit right in at a Williamsburg coffee shop or hip East Village bar with their long, unkempt beard. Buffalo, however, might feel more comfortable in a Midtown office with a strict facial hair policy; they lack a beard of any sort.
5. Weighty Matters
The American bison wins in the length department: Males, called bulls, can grow up to 12.5 feet from head to rump and weigh as much as 2,200 pounds. The Cape buffalo comes in second in length, at around 11 feet and weighs in at a little less than 2,00o pounds. The water buffalo can grow up to nine feet and weigh as much as 2,650 pounds, making it the heavyweight champion. Its tail is also longer than that of a bison, up to 33 inches compared with 26 inches for the bison.
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