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Bison or Buffalo? What's the Difference?

Some of our most patriotic songs paint a beautiful picture of America past and present. "America the Beautiful" reminds us of our nation's "amber waves of grain" and "purple mountain majesties," while "God Bless America" pays tribute to all our country's great lands, "From the mountains to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam." And of course, "Home on the Range" tells the tale of someone in search of a home "where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play."

A herd of bison. (Photo via Shutterstock)

All these lyrics, sung by millions of schoolchildren over the generations, paint a quaint image of America. But they don't exactly get all the details about this great land right. For example, nowhere in America is technically land "where the buffalo roam," unless you happen to be visiting a zoo. Instead, these lands are where the bison roam.

The confusion between buffalo and bison began centuries ago, when early settlers in the western United States referred to the American bison roaming the plains as buffalo. They may have chosen the term buffalo as a homage to the French word for beef, which is boeuf, or possibly because the hides from bison were familiar to the buff coats worn by men in the military at the time.


Words to know

Homage: Special honor, respect or remembrance.

Indigenous: Originating in a particular place.

Quaint: Attractively unusual or old fashioned.

Synonym: A word or phrase having exactly or nearly the same meaning as another word or phrase in the same language.


Hundreds of years later, the term buffalo is still commonly used to refer to bison. It can be confusing, though, because buffaloes are animals of their own. Water buffaloes live in Asia, and Cape buffaloes, or African buffaloes, live in Africa.

Buffalo and bison are closely related, with both belonging to the Bovidae family. They are among the largest members of the Bovidae family, and they also both have horns. But it's not just geography that separates bison from buffalo. For starters, you can use their horns as a key identification feature. Bison have shorter and sharper horns than either water buffaloes or Cape buffaloes. The horns of a Cape buffalo look similar to a handlebar mustache, and a water buffalo's horns curve upward in a crescent shape.

A water buffalo. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Aside from the horns, there are some other physical differences too. Both buffalo species are more of a dark gray or even black color, while bison are dark brown. Bison have larger heads than buffalo, and they have a large hump at their shoulders. Bison also have furry "beards" that hang from their chins. And they shed their thick fur coats each spring or early summer, giving them a kind of patchy appearance until the old coat is fully shed.

It's unlikely that buffalo will stop being a synonym for bison here in the United States since it's a term that has been in use for centuries, but the original inhabitants of what is now the United States had another word for what we now call bison. The Lakota called bison tatanka, and the animals were of great importance in Lakota culture.

The Lakota spent time following bison across the plains in the time before European immigrants to America began to settle the West. Bison were important in other indigenous cultures as well, and different Native Americans had different terms for the animals. The Navajo called bison ivanbito, while they were called iinniiwa in the language of Blackfoot tribes.

Native peoples relied on bison for their survival, using every part of the animal in their daily lives. They hunted bison for meat to eat and used their hides for clothing, shelter and blankets. They also used parts of the animals to make tools and jewelry and used them in traditional ceremonies.

Westward expansion of the United States by European settlers nearly drove bison to extinction. Early in the 19th century, between 30 million and 60 million bison were thought to live in North America, but that number fell to fewer than 1,000 by the 1890s. The drastic decline was the result of a "Great Slaughter" caused by demand for the animals in international markets, the introduction of disease from livestock like cattle and sheep, and an effort by the U.S. government to kill bison as a means of controlling Native peoples and destroying their livelihood.

The bison population recovered from its low point at the end of the 19th century, but it's still nowhere near the level before the Great Slaughter. Today, bison occupy only about 1% of what their range once was. The total bison population in the United States is estimated at between 400,000 and 500,000.

The vast majority of bison in the United States today are raised as livestock, with about 30,000 living in public and private herds managed for conservation purposes. The only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times is Yellowstone National Park. The bison in the herds at Yellowstone are significant to several Native tribes because they are revered as descendants of the herds that once freely roamed America's grasslands.


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