Bison vs Buffalo: 5 Key Differences

Written by AZ Animals Staff
Published: June 26, 2021


When settlers first visited the new world and witnessed bison, they thought they looked like the Cape and water buffalo from other parts of the world, so they called them buffalo, and this misnomer continues to today.

However, buffalo (Syncerus caffer) and bison (Bison bison) are two entirely different animal species. They are both part of the cow family, so what is the real difference? To begin with, bison have larger heads and shoulders, paired with much shorter horns, while buffalo have more proportionate head and shoulders, and much larger, more curved horns.

Comparing Buffalo vs Bison

Though we will mainly focus on the American Bison and the African Buffalo, there are three species of buffalo and also three types of bison.

The three species of buffalo are:

African/Cape (Syncerus caffer)

Found all over the continent of Africa, the Cape species have broad, curling horns that cover much of the tops of their heads.

Asian water (Bubalus arnee)

This animal, which closely resembles a domestic cow, save for its horns, is found primarily in India and is considered endangered.

Domestic water (Bubalus bubalis)

This smaller species is found in China and other parts of Asia.

The two species of bison are:

American

This North American animal has two subspecies.

Plains (Bison bison)

These animals are found mostly on the American prairie.

Wood (Bison bison athbascae)

This species is found in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska.

European (Bison bonasus)

This species was extinct in the wild, but was bred in captivity and reintroduced across Europe in the late 20th century.

The easiest way to show the differences between these animals is to make a size comparison between the buffalo and the bison. Though water buffalo are the heaviest at nearly 2700 pounds, a typical bison is around 12 feet from head to tail, weighing in at about 2200 pounds, while a water buffalo is only about nine feet in length. The Cape buffalo is 11 feet long but usually weighs just under a ton. Bulls from both species of bison are about six feet high, while buffalo of both types are closer to four or five feet.

Bison Buffalo
Size 2,200 to 2,500 lbs. 1,300 to 2,000 lbs.
Lifespan 15 to 20 years 15 to 25 years
Habitat Grasslands, prairies, forests Woodland, grass pastures, marshes
Species American bison in North America.
European bison in Europe.
African buffalo and water Buffalo.
Body Large heads and a shoulder hump Larger horns and no shoulder hump

The 6 Key Differences Between Bison and Buffalo

Bison vs Buffalo: Location

Buffalo are found in Asia and Africa. Bison are found in North America and Europe.

Bison vs Buffalo: Head and shoulders

Bison have massive heads and a large shoulder hump. Buffalo heads are much more proportionate to their bodies and they have no hump.

Bison vs Buffalo: Body shape

Buffalo has fairly straight backs, with necks that extend up at an angle like most quadrupeds. Because of their huge heads and large shoulder humps, bison have much larger fronts, and their backs appear to slope downward from shoulder to rump.

Bison vs Buffalo: Horns

The horn comparison must include both Asian and African buffalo, as well as bison. Bison all have short, relatively slender horns that curve out of their heads, a couple of inches above their eyes. Water buffalo have wider horns that grow sideways out of their heads before curving up, with spans that can reach up to six feet. African buffalo have very wide horns that typically cover the top of their heads and resemble massive handlebar mustaches.

Bison vs Buffalo: Fur

Buffalo has thin, sparse fur that they keep year-round. Bison have a shaggy winter coat that they shed in the summer months.

Bison vs Buffalo: Size

For the most part, bison are longer, taller, and heavier than buffalo. African buffalo are smaller in all three ways, though Asian water buffalo are actually heavier than both, coming in at nearly 3000 pounds.

Bison vs Buffalo: 5 Key Differences FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Is a Bison the same thing as a Buffalo?

No, buffalo and bison are different species, though they are both in the cow family.

What's the difference between a Bison and a Buffalo?

Buffalo are smaller and have larger horns compared to their head size. Bison are only found in North America.

Is Bison another name for Buffalo?

Technically, no. Though the names of these two species are often used interchangeably in North America, they are not the same animal.

Why do we call bison buffalo?

When the first travelers came to North America, they thought the bison here resembled the buffalo back in other parts of the world, so that is what they called them. As for why we still call them that today, it may have something to do with the popular old western song “Home on the Range.”

Is a bison larger than a buffalo?

Yes, a side-by-side comparison shows that a bison is generally larger than a buffalo, particularly through the head and shoulders. They are also longer.

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