Buffalo vs Bison – Beyond Basins

For those of you who have somehow managed to avoid the age-old buffalo/bison joke, perhaps because English is your second language or because you have been living alone in a remote cave somewhere until a recent date, it is as follows:

Question: What’s the difference between a buffalo and bison?

Answer: You can’t wash your hands in a buffalo!

Appropriate response: Ranges from a long groan to a slight chuckle, depending on how deeply you care about the feelings of the joke-teller.

Regardless of how keen you are on hygiene-related humour, this joke does embody a genuine issue amongst animal lovers everywhere: what really is the difference between a buffalo and bison?

As it turns out, the difference is pretty big; bigger than the difference between a lion and a tiger, for example, if we’re talking in terms of taxonomy. Whilst the lion and the tiger are both members of the Panthera genus, buffalo and bison are from entirely different genera within tribe Bovini, which is in the subfamily Bovinae.

To make things easier from the beginning, here is a (simplified, believe it or not) Bovini tree (click to enlarge):

Bovini tree

As can be seen in the tree, not only are bison distinct from buffalo, but buffalo are also distinct from buffalo. The wild water (or Asian) buffalo and the water (or domestic Asian) buffalo – sorry, someone else chose the names – are members of the Bubalus genus, whilst the African buffalo (all 5 subspecies) is a member of the Syncerus genus.

In other words, bison are roughly as closely related to buffalo as sheep are to goats. Make of that what you will.

American bison (www.freeimages.com/photographer/mexikids-29583)

Now onto the fun part! Which species should you be most scared of? Here are some stats to help you decide:


American bison stand at 5-6.5ft tall at the shoulder and 7-11.5ft long, and weigh up to 2,200lbs (~1000kg), making them the largest mammal in North America. European bison (wisent) are smaller than American bison but very similar in appearance, and are the largest herbivores in Europe.

African (Cape) buffalo are split into savanna buffalo (larger, dark grey or black) and forest buffalo (smaller, reddish), and stand at 3.3-5.4ft tall and weigh up to 1,500lbs (~700kg). Wild water buffalo and water buffalo (the distinction between the two can be unclear, but generally the main difference is that the latter are domestic whilst the former are not) are the largest members of the Bovini tribe, standing at 5-6.2ft tall and 8-9ft long, and weighing up to 2,650lbs (~1200kg).


Bison can run at speeds of 40mph so are strong contenders in any battle of the fast and furious, and mating competition between males tends to involve head-to-head ramming, which is testy in anyone’s book. Be especially wary if a bison’s tail is standing straight up, as it is likely to mean that the bison is preparing to charge.

Domesticated water buffalo are less aggressive than their wild counterparts, presumably for the obvious reason that they have been bred to co-exist with humans. The horns of a wild water buffalo have the widest span of any bovid and are there for a reason.

It’s the African buffalo, however, who might just be the winner of this contest; they have a reputation for attacking humans, particularly after being shot (understandable), but this may just be because of the various factors that often bring them into conflict with people. In some male Cape buffalo, the horns form a fierce-looking shield across their forehead (a ‘boss.’) African buffalo are very protective of their herd members; as a group, they can drive away lions with ease and will charge over to a calf in danger in order to protect it.

Cape or African buffalo (freeimages.com/photographer/fishcat007-77741)

IUCN Red List Category

Obviously, the species of fearsome bovid that you are most likely to meet depends on where you live or choose to visit, but the IUCN Red List can reveal which you are least likely to see according to their conservation status. Whilst the African buffalo is still considered to be of Least Concern, the American bison is classed as Near Threatened and the European bison as Vulnerable. The wild water buffalo is categorised as Endangered, with hybridisation with domestic water buffalo and habitat loss being the greatest threats to the continued survival of the Bubalus arnee species. They are already regionally extinct in several areas of Asia, and numbers in the wild are thought to be no more than 4,000 individuals.