Bison vs. Buffalo: What's the Difference?

By: Sascha Bos  | 
Where the buffalo roam ... or are these bison grazing at Grand Teton National Park? Danny Lehman / Getty Images

People often use the terms "bison" and "buffalo" interchangeably when referring to large, wooly animals in the Bovidae family. If you drive by one of the two in a national park you may even be inclined to say, "Buffalo, bison — they're basically the same, right?"

Not so fast; there are a few distinctions you should know when it comes to bison vs. buffalo identification.


What Is a Bison?

Bison are members of the Bovidae family (hoofed animals including domestic cattle). There are two species in the Bison genus: American bison (Bison bison) and European bison (Bison bonasus).

American Bison

American bison (Bison bison) are native to North America and the national animal of the United States. They are sometimes divided into two subspecies: the plains bison (Bison bison bison) and the wood bison (Bison bison athabascae).


When Europeans first arrived in North America, it was inhabited by about 50 million plains bison — "the largest aggregation of large animals known to recorded history," according to Britannica. Native Americans living in the Great Plains successfully managed the bison population while utilizing bison meat, hides, and sinew, but white settlers brought the bison near extinction as they colonized the West.

"They're very smart animals," Lydia Austin, the interpretative programs manager at Custer State Park in South Dakota, told HowStuffWorks. "That's a problem that you run into with a lot of visitors at the park. They think they're, slow, docile, for lack of a better word 'dumb' animals."

That couldn't be further from the truth. In Yellowstone National Park, bison tend to injure more visitors than any other animal. (The park is also home to bears and wolves.) The National Park Service recommends keeping at least 25 yards (23 meters) of distance between yourself and a bison.

"They can turn on a dime," Austin says. "They use their front legs to turn and then swing their behind around, so they can turn a lot faster than your horses turn, or your truck. They usually go where they want to go."

European Bison

The European bison (Bison bonasus) is found in Eastern Europe, including Belarus, Bulgaria, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine.

Declared endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 1996, conservation efforts have saved wild populations of European bison from extinction. The European bison is now "vulnerable."


What Is a Buffalo?

Buffalo are members of the Bovidae family, just like bison, but they live on different continents and are each part of a different genus.

The water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) lives in South Asia, and the Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer) is the only native African buffalo species.


Water Buffalo

The water buffalo's horns are its distinguishing feature. The long, curved horns can reach 6 feet (1.8 meters), longer than any member of the Bovidae family.

Water buffalo have dark, short coats that distinguish them from fluffy bison.

According to Britannica, "there are 74 breeds of domestic water buffalo numbering some 165 million animals, but only small numbers of wild water buffalo remain."

Cape Buffalo

African Cape buffalo roam the grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa in large herds, grazing on huge quantities of grass. Like water buffalo, cape buffalo have curved horns and short coats.


Why Are American Bisons Called Buffalo?

The "American buffalo" is actually a bison. So why do so many people continue to call bisons buffalo?

It's likely that explorers who had never seen American bison — but were familiar with buffalo — mistakenly believed the animals were the same, and the name stuck.


Identifying Bison vs. Buffalo in the Wild

Although it's unlikely you would come upon a bison and a buffalo standing side by side in a field (they live on different continents), here's how you can tell the difference between bison and buffalo just by their looks:

  • Bison have a shoulder hump and buffalo species do not. The shoulder hump allows bison to use their heads to plow snow in the winter, a feature buffalos — who live in warmer climates — do not need.
  • Bison have thick coats — including on their faces. If you see an animal with a beard, it's a bison, not a buffalo. For example, the Buffalo Bills mascot has a goatee, making it a bison, not a buffalo.
  • If you encounter a buffalo, the first thing you would probably notice (after its intimidating size) is its horns. Buffalo have long, curved horns (up to 6 feet or 1.8 meters long). Bison horns are short and point straight up.