In America, a trip out West isn’t complete unless you take a drive through one of the majestic national parks of Wyoming and Montana, home to bears, wolves, eagles, and buffalo. Or bison. Or both? Aren’t bison and buffalo the same thing?
The answer is a rather wishy-washy “yes and no”. It is perfectly reasonable in North America to interchange “bison” and “buffalo”: not only does everyone know what you mean, but few people will correct you. That being said, bison and buffalo are actually quite different, despite their similar appearance and the fact that they are both members of the bovid, or cattle, family, and if you use the wrong term outside of North America you may not be understood quite as well.
For example, in Europe, a “bison” is a very specific type of bovid and refers only to the American or European Bison, whereas a “buffalo” can be either an African or South Asian species that doesn’t share much commonalities with the European bison.
So how can you tell the difference between a buffalo and a bison? It’s all in the horns. Bison horns are shorter and smaller, like cow’s horns, while buffalo have massive, curved horns. Bison can also be distinguished by their sharply sloping back. What if you want to tell the difference between the American and European bison? European bison tend to be a little less hairy, and some say that the horns are at slightly different angles.
The strange thing about the American tendency to call bison and buffalo by the same name is that buffalo have never, ever inhabited North America. So why would we pick up a foreign term to describe a native species? The best guess we can make is that the early settlers and explorers of North America thought that the American bison was similar enough to an old world buffalo to share the same name.
At one point, there were as many 60 million bison roaming North America; by 1883, that number was reduced to 40 million, and by the early 1900s hunting had reduced the numbers to less than 1,000. Today’s bison population is almost entirely made up of bison who were bred in zoos and parks instead of in the wild.
As an important side note, bison might look funny and docile, but they are actually quite dangerous and regularly cause harm to visitors who stray too close. Keep your distance!