What is the Difference Between Bison and Buffalo?

Difference Between Bison and Buffalo

The terms bison and buffalo have often been used interchangeably. Some people don’t seem to notice the difference between bison and buffalo; they simply call one another. This misconception is tied to history.

Historically speaking, the European settlers of the Great Plains were the first to call “bison” – “buffalo” due to their (somewhat) similar appearance to the creatures found in Africa and Asia. Habits, they say, die hard. From then on, most people refer to the bison as buffalo.

Buffalo and bison belong to the family Bovidae, which includes other cloven-hoofed ruminants, like antelopes, gazelles, goats, and sheep.

Despite their similarity and the fact that they belong to the Bovidae family, they are not truly related. Today, there are only four actual bison and buffalo species.

Keep reading as we explore the difference between these creatures.

1. Head and Shoulder Hump

The most apparent difference between bison and buffalo is in the size of their head and the presence of shoulder humps.

Bison have enormous heads and a vast shoulder hump. The hump here helps hold the musculature of the bison’s enormous head.

More so, the presence of the hump here is also an adaptive technique in response to its habitat.

The hump gives the bison a particularly powerful head, which allows it to push aside heavy snow drifts in the winter.

In contrast, the buffalo has a smaller head and no hump. The head of the buffalo here is proportionate to its body, giving it a more symmetrical look.

2. Shape and Size of Horn

Another distinct difference between bison and buffalo that can be identified even from a distance is their horns’ shape and size.

Bison have short, stubby, and slender horns that grow to reach 0.5 meters on average. This horn extends from the side of their head for several feet and then curls up; this allows them to fight against each other with their heads.

On the other hand, the horns of a buffalo are large and more pronounced- some grow more than 1.8 meters and typically cover the top of their heads.

The horns have a thick base and are also curved (it has a pronounced arc). The horns of a buffalo are sometimes likened to massive handlebar mustaches.

3. Presence of Beard

The presence of a beard is also a distinct difference between bison and buffalo. Bison have longish thick unkempt beards under their chin, but a buffalo is beardless.

4. Coat

Another basis for comparison between these creatures is in their coat. Bison have long, dense, and shaggy fur that keeps them warm in the harsh winter weather of the Great Plains.

This coat is also an adaptive feature; they usually shed it annually in the hot summer months.

On the other hand, the buffalo has a lighter coat of short fur (that they don’t shed), which allows water to roll off its back.

Nature has a way of taking care of its own. Since there are usually found in Africa and southern Asia, they don’t need to grow a thick bison-like coat because they are exposed to a far narrower range of temperatures.

5. Size and Body Shape

Because of the absence of a hump in buffalo, the buffalo has straight backs, with necks that extend up at an angle like most quadrupled.

In contrast, the bison have more significant fronts, and their backs appear to slope downward from shoulder to rump because of the huge heads and large shoulder humps.

From our comparison in stating the difference between bison and buffalo, one can easily infer which of them will be bigger in size and weight.

Considering that there are various species of bison and buffalo, there is also a difference in weight and size. Nevertheless, the American bison is longer and heavier than the Cape buffalo.

Bison can be up to 3.8 meters long and can weigh up to 1,000 kilograms, whereas the Cape buffalo, considered the largest of the 3 buffalo species, can grow up to 3.4 meters and weigh around 900 kilograms. For the most part, bison are longer, taller, and heavier than buffalo.

Notwithstanding the above analysis, the heaviest of all bison and buffalo species is the water buffalo, which can weigh up to 1,200 kilograms.

6. Habitat

Another difference between bison and buffalo is in terms of habitat. Bison are native to North America and parts of Europe and can be found in plains and cold places, usually around grasslands, prairies, and forests.

On the other hand, the buffalo is indigenous to Africa (Cape buffalo) and South Asia (water buffalo). Buffalos can be found around woodland, grass pastures, and marshes.

Notwithstanding, the Africa (cape) buffalo can and mostly live in rugged conditions, while Asia (water ) buffalo cannot live in rugged conditions.

7. Lifespan and population

Bison live in the wild and have an average lifespan of 13-21 years. The buffalo, on the other hand, has a longer lifespan. The water buffalo can live up to 25-30 years, while the cape buffalo up to 15-25 years.

In terms of population, there are more buffalos than bison. Perhaps, this is connected to the fact that bison were once hunted to near extinction and are not as domesticated as buffalo.

The Bison population is estimated to be around 2 million, while Buffaloes are estimated to be about 150 million worldwide.

8. Senses and temperament

Another difference between bison and buffalo is their sense of sight and temperament.

The bison have poor eyesight because they are nearsighted, while the buffalo have excellent vision. More so, the bison is often more aggressive than the buffalo.


As we have seen so far, several differences exist between a bison and a buffalo. Some of the difference we’ve seen so far is tied to their head, horn, and hump.

We also examined these creatures’ differences based on their coat, size and body shape, habitat, lifespan, population, and sense of sight.

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