Hikes through game reserves are popular throughout South Africa and the USA with the most well-known places being the Kruger National Park and Yellowstone National Park respectively.
Both parks are visited by hundreds, if not thousands of people every year and boast a wide variety of wildlife.
Obviously, the larger animals are often the bigger attraction – specifically because of their size.
If you’ve been to these places, you’ve probably seen buffalo and bison and heard the two names switched around a few times.
They’re similar animals and are often confused for one another, but what sets these two species apart?
The main differences between buffaloes and bison are that bison are smaller but heavier, and have shorter and sharper horns. They also live in different climates.
Their social dynamics are also entirely different; while buffalo typically travel in large herds of between 50 and 500 members (1000 in the rainy season), bison have separate herds of males and females which only mingle around mating season.
There are three types/species of buffalo, they are:
- African Buffalo are found only in sub-Saharan Africa. There are four subspecies of African buffalo: the Cape buffalo, central Africa Savanna buffalo, Forest buffalo, and West African Savanna buffalo.
- Wild Asian Water Buffalo are native to the Indian sub-continent.
- Domestic Asian Water Buffalo are also native to the Indian sub-continent but are also found in China and throughout South East Asia.
The three bison species are:
- The American bison can be found throughout North America.
- The European bison is found mostly in Poland. The wood bison which is a subspecies of the American bison is found in Alaska and Canada.
The Differences Between the Two are Many
Let’s start off with the obvious, these two animals look completely different.
Bison have a stockier build, with a large hump on broad shoulders and a big, broad head and short, sharp horns.
They also have shaggy beards and thicker coats. Buffalo, on the other hand, has much smaller heads and shoulders.
They have no hump but are a more streamlined structure and longer horns. Their coats are thinner, and they have no beard.
The American Bison typically reach around 3.8 meters in length and can weigh up to 1,000 kilograms or more. On the other hand, a Cape buffalo can reach around 3.4 meters in length and can weigh up to 900 kilograms.
A water buffalo is the heaviest of both species, weighing around 1200 kilograms. It’s also the smallest of the two species, reaching only 2.7 meters in length.
Buffalo and bison both have horns. A bison’s horns are shorter and, usually, sharper than the horns of a buffalo. The length of a bison’s horns typically reaches around 0.5 meters.
Buffalo horns, on the other hand, are longer – reaching around 2 meters in length – and are handlebar-shaped.
Bison and buffalo have different natural habitats. Bison are typically found in colder climates in North America, Alaska, and parts of Europe – notably Poland. On the other hand, buffalo are found in much warmer climates in Africa and Asia.
Buffalo is exposed to a smaller range of temperatures and has a very thin, smooth coat. They also don’t shed.
Bison have a shaggy double-layered coat which allows them to stay warm in the harsher winter climates in which they live. Their inner coat is shed during the warmer months.
Buffalo and bison are both very social animals and travel in herds. Buffalo herds consist of between 50 and 500 members for most of the year. The herds can grow to 1000 members in the rainy season.
Bison, on the other hand, travel in separate herds of males and females – until the rut (mating season) when the two meet up and mingle for a while to make lots of little bison babies.
This is one of the biggest differences between the two species: their defensive behaviors. When bison are angry or agitated, they give off warning signals.
Other than false charges, these signals include:
- Head shaking
- Foot stomping
- Tree Thrashing (headbutting trees)
- Wallowing (rolling in the dirt)
An interesting warning sign that you’ll see is the tail of the animal. When their tails are down against their bodies just flicking idly back and forth, they’re calm but when they’re agitated or upset, that tail of theirs stands up straight.
Buffalo doesn’t give a warning, one minute they’re fine and calm and the next they’re all over you. They’re also known to take revenge on anyone who harms a member of their herd.
Greg is a South African farmer and homesteader who’s been around animals ever since he can remember. He’s also an avid camper and hiker.