In A Nutshell
What’s the difference? The short answer is “absolutely nothing.” The more complicated answer is “absolutely everything.” The American animal commonly referred to as the buffalo is actually called the bison; in that sense, there’s no difference, and they’re the same animal. However, the term “buffalo” is much more differently applied to two other completely different species of animal, the water buffalo and the cape buffalo.
The Whole Bushel
The scientific name of the bison is actually Bison bison, clearing up any question on what the largest land animal in the Americas is actually called. But everywhere you look, they’re called “buffalo.” There’s the buffalo nickel, Buffalo Bill Cody, even the Buffalo Bills of Buffalo, New York. Why do we have two completely different names for this animal?
One theory is that the word “buffalo” came from a term used to refer to the heavy leather coats once worn by the English military and, by extension, any animal whose hides were used to make such coats. The term “buff” went from the coat to the massive animals roaming the New World. From there, that eventually turned into buffalo.
The problem comes in that the term was already given to other animals not immediately related to the bison, meaning that the answer to the question of difference is also “everything.” The African buffalo is one of the world’s largest herbivores, found throughout Africa as its name suggests. Also known as the cape buffalo, the African buffalo is divided into the subspecies of forest buffalo and the savannah buffalo, depending on what kind of environment they live in. African buffalo look more like massive cows than bison, with their short fur and cow-like faces. These “true” buffalo have the scientific name Syncerus caffer, and that’s not even close to the scientific name of the other type of “true” buffalo, the water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis).
The water buffalo is an even more massive creature than the bison or the African buffalo, weighing up to 1,200 kilograms (2,650 lbs). The African buffalo average about 700 kilograms (1,500 lbs), while today’s bison are between 300 and 900 kilograms (700–2,000 lbs). Water buffalo also have a more cow-like appearance than bison; put the three species side by side, and there’s definitely one that doesn’t look like it belongs. They’re all related; they belong to the Bovini tribe of mammals, one that also includes other massive, hoofed animals like the yak and different types of wild cattle.
Water buffalo have been domesticated for almost 5,000 years; people throughout their native range in southeastern Asia have long used them as farm animals. Their broad, splayed hooves, ability to walk easily through water, mud, and marshland, along with their massive size and generally docile natures made them ideal farm animals. Most water buffalo today are domesticated, and wild water buffalo are considered endangered.
Unfortunately, the bison are also facing an endangered status. Once, massive herds roamed the American west—so many that the appearance of the majestic beasts became synonymous with the untamed Wild West. Herds of bison once traveled anywhere there was suitable grazing, from midwest grasslands to the arid semi-desert to the boreal forests, from Alaska to Mexico. Now, they’ve been hunted nearly to extinction and survive on only a relative handful of protected lands and sanctuaries.
Sadly, one thing that the bison, the water buffalo and the African buffalo have in common is their biggest threat—humans. Human expansion into the western parts of North America caused much of the massive, wholesale slaughter of the giant bison herds. Wild water buffalo are not only losing their habitat, but they’re also breeding with domestic water buffalo and ultimately diminishing the numbers of wild animals. And modernization is taking away the wide expanses that the African buffalo once had to roam, intersecting it with highways.