The iconic song of the American West, “Home on the Range,” got a key detail wrong — buffalo never roamed the region! But bison still do. Isn’t it time you learned why?
Are bison and buffalo the same?
Though the terms are often used interchangeably, buffalo and bison are distinct animals. Old World “true” buffalo (Cape buffalo and water buffalo) are native to Africa and Asia. Bison are found in North America and Europe.
Both bison and buffalo are in the bovidae family, but the two are not closely related.
How did the names get so mixed up? Historians believe that early European explorers are to blame, though the details are a bit murky. According to the National Park Service, it’s possible it stemmed from the French word boeuf, meaning beef. Others posit that bison hides resembled buff coats commonly worn by military men at the time, inspiring the name. Whatever the case, the misnomer stuck.
So how do you tell the difference between buffalo and bison?
Bison have large humps at their shoulders and bigger heads than buffalo. They also have beards, as well as thick coats which they shed in the spring and early summer.