Buffalo and bison belong to the tribe Bovini, which includes medium to massive animals of the Bovidae family. The Bovidae family also includes antelopes, gazelles, goats, and sheep.
While a number of Bovini species are commonly called buffalo or bison (the anoa a “dwarf buffalo” and the gaur “Indian bison,” for example), there are only four true bison and buffalo species.
American bison (Bison bison) roam in Yellowstone and are portrayed on the National Park Service’s arrowhead emblem and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s seal. They’re the heaviest land animals in North America and, since 2016, the U.S.’s national mammal, joining the patriotic ranks of its national bird, the bald eagle.
Centuries ago, American bison inhabited large swaths of North America—the “great bison belt” extending from Alaska to Florida and east to New York. They now have a patchy range thanks to commercial hunting, slaughter, and diseases introduced by domestic cattle during the late 1800s. Today, wild bison occur sparsely throughout Canada and Alaska, and in parts of the West, including Idaho, Montana, Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and even on California’s Catalina Island, though that herd was introduced.
Besides wild populations, there are also domesticated American bison that are grown for meat.
American bison and European bison, aka wisent, are the only two extant species of bison in the world. European bison (Bison bonasus), Europe’s largest land animals, share many similarities with their American counterparts but instead are found in Germany, Poland, Belarus, Switzerland, and Lithuania. The largest population occurs on the border of Poland and Belarus, in the Bialowieża Primeval Forest.
As with American bison, European bison were hunted to near extinction before the 20th century. The scientist-led Society for the Protection of the European Bison (succeeded by the European Bison Friends Society) was founded in 1922 and has since played a major role in the species’ recovery. European bison have been bumped from an endangered species to near threatened on IUCN’s Red List. At the time of the last assessment, in 2020, there were believed to be 2,518 mature individuals remaining.
Wild water buffalo (Bubalus arnee) inhabit wetlands, grasslands, forest, and savanna biomes in Asia—namely India, Nepal, Bhutan, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka. They are known to wallow in mud to keep cool in high Asiatic temperatures.
While bison are happy to graze on dry plains, water buffalo prefer a wet diet of aquatic plants. They will even graze with their heads underwater, ripping up reeds and invasive grasses from the bottom of swamps and other waterlogged areas.
Water buffalo are widely used as “living tractors” in the agricultural industry. Wild populations are considered endangered—2,500 mature individuals and decreasing—partially because of domestication. Wild populations compete and often interbreed with domestic populations. They also face threats from hunting and disease from cattle.
The two remaining extant buffalo species belong to different genera—the water buffalo to Bubalus and the African buffalo to Syncerus. African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) occur only in Africa.
How to Tell the Difference Between Buffalo and Bison
You can tell a buffalo from a bison just by looking at it, geographic range aside. If it has a big hump on its shoulder, stubby horns, and a thick beard and coat, it’s a bison. If it looks to have finer, black hair and long horns that curl upward, it’s a buffalo. When comparing the two, you’ll notice that a bison’s head is much larger.
As for telling the difference between bison species, that’s a bit trickier. The American bison typically has more hair, and its head hangs lower than the European bison’s because it grazes more. The water buffalo and African buffalo are easier to tell apart by their horns: the former’s curve up and inward while the latter’s curl around like a handlebar mustache.