Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bison vs Buffalo

I've been visiting national parks for years. When we lived in California, our annual vacation was to the Grand Teton & Yellowstone areas. Back in the 90s, everyone referred to the animal pictured above as bison. This seems to have changed all of a sudden and I'm curious why. People call them buffalo. I've always thought bison was the correct term for these animals. It is their scientific name and comes from the Latin term -- Bison bison.

However, even the parks are calling them buffalo now. I wonder why the change? In the 17th century, French explorers referred to the animals as "les boeufs", which means oxen or beeves. But later, the English arrived and changed their name to "la buff", which later got translated into the word buffalo. There are differences between the American bison and buffalo ...

Bison have a hairy, fur coat that gets thicker in winter.
Buffaloes do not have thick fur.

Bison have very sharp horns that they use for defense.
Buffalo horns aren't sharp, but are longer than bison horns.

Bison have a hump over the top of their front legs.
Buffalo do not have this hump.

Bison have a thick beard that circles their ribcage.
Buffaloes do not have a beard.

Bison have an estimated population of 2 million.
Buffaloes are estimated at 150 million.

To me, these animals will always be bison. That's what I've called them all my life and that's what my kids have learned to call them. When I hear the word buffalo, I think of an African water buffalo with long, curvy horns that cradle the side of its head. How about you? Do you prefer one name over the other?


  1. I was never clear on the differences between the two, but understood they were two different animals. I think we should use the correct name for each, just as we distinguish rabbits and hares, gators and crocs, and so on.

  2. I never realized they were different, either. We went on vacation one year and nearby a man had a collection of animals fenced in on his land. The locals told us about it and how people would bring apples to feed to them. The buffalo had the longest tongues, it frightened my kids when they stuck those long tongues out to get the apples. They are really unique animals.