Buffalo and bison are two words that are often used interchangeably, and it’s easy to see why. Not only do they look alike, but they’re both large, shaggy mammals that roam the grasslands of North America. However, despite their similarities, there are some key differences between them that are worth exploring.
One of the most obvious differences between bison and buffalo is their physical appearance. Bison are typically larger and heavier than buffalo, with bulls (males) weighing up to 2,000 pounds and standing 6 feet tall at the shoulder. Meanwhile, buffalo bulls weigh around 1,100 pounds and stand 5 feet tall at the shoulder. Additionally, bison have a hump on their shoulders that buffalo don’t, and their heads are more triangular in shape.
Another key difference is their fur. Bison have thicker, shaggier coats that are better suited to the cold winters of the Great Plains, whereas buffalo have shorter, sleeker coats that are better for warmer climates. Bison also have longer, curlier hair on their heads and necks, while buffalo have shorter hair.
Habitat and Range
Both bison and buffalo are native to North America and were once found throughout the continent in vast herds. However, due to overhunting and habitat destruction, their ranges have been severely reduced.
Buffalo live primarily in the Great Plains region of the United States, with some populations in Canada and Mexico. Most of the remaining buffalo in the United States today are found in national parks such as Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Parks.
Bison, on the other hand, are found throughout the Great Plains and into Canada. Yellowstone National Park is home to one of the largest remaining bison herds in North America, but they also live in other protected areas such as Custer State Park in South Dakota and Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada.
Behavior and Social Structure
Both bison and buffalo are social animals that live in large herds. However, their behavior and social structures are slightly different.
Bison are more nomadic and tend to roam over larger areas than buffalo. They also have a more complex social structure, with individuals forming dominance hierarchies within the herd. Bison cows (females) are more likely to form long-lasting social bonds with other cows, while bulls tend to be solitary or form small groups with other males.
Buffalo, on the other hand, are more sedentary and tend to stay in one area for longer periods of time. They have simpler social structures, with cows and calves forming the core of the herd and bulls moving in and out of the group.
Both bison and buffalo are herbivores that subsist mainly on grasses, although their diets can differ slightly depending on the season and location.
Bison have a broader diet than buffalo and are able to tolerate a wider range of grasses and other plants. They also have a more specialized digestive system that allows them to extract more nutrients from their food.
Buffalo are more selective about the types of grasses they eat, preferring certain species over others. Additionally, buffalo are less able to digest tough, fibrous grasses and rely more heavily on grazing during the spring and summer when plants are more tender.
Both bison and buffalo were once hunted to the brink of extinction, and their populations have only begun to recover in the last century. Today, they are both considered relatively stable, with some populations growing and others remaining stable or declining.
Bison are classified as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). While their numbers have rebounded somewhat since their historic lows in the 19th century, they still face threats such as habitat loss, disease, and inbreeding.
Buffalo are more numerous than bison, with an estimated population of around 500,000 in North America. However, they still face threats such as habitat loss, hunting, and competition with livestock for grazing land.
In summary, while buffalo and bison may look similar at first glance, there are significant differences between the two species. Bison are larger, have shaggier coats, roam over larger areas, and have more complex social structures. Meanwhile, buffalo have shorter, sleeker coats, are more selective about their diet, and have simpler social structures. Both species have faced significant challenges in the past, but are now on the road to recovery thanks to conservation efforts and protections.