Buffalo vs Bison: A taxonomy lesson you won't soon forget

Buffalo vs Bison: A taxonomy lesson you won't soon forget

Do you love your grilled buffalo burgers? What if you were told that it might not have actually been buffalo? In fact, other than those brought here to raise, buffalo have never existed in America. Think this story is bogus? Keep reading.

Bison – The buffalo of Kansas

“Home on the Range,” the lyrics of the state song of Kansas, read:

“Oh give me a home; where the buffalo roam; where the deer and the antelope play…”

In truth, the “buffalo” of Western America were actually bison. Bison and buffalo are related, but not closely. There are significant differences between the two. Although they are both of the Bovidae family, they are different genera. All Bison are of the same genus, while buffalo can be of the Syncerus or the Bubalus genera. There are also several subgenera of each, many extinct and some still on the earth today.

The difference between bison and buffalo can be clearly seen when looking at their shoulders and their horns. Bison have a hump between their shoulder blades, giving them the ability to easily plow through snow during cold Midwest winters, whereas buffalo have no hump. However, the horns on a buffalo are much bigger than the bison, growing to over 6 feet with deep arcs. Bison horns are shorter and, as many a famer could attest, sharper.

American bison vs European bison

There have been many subgenera of bison in America, Europe, and Russia, but only two still remain today. The subgenus bison bison resides in North America, and there are many different types of these as well. The subgenus of the European bison is bonasus, and there is only the one type remaining today.

American “buffalo” were on the endangered species list for many years due to the intentional thinning of the herds by soldiers trying to rob the Native Americans of their livelihood. At one time there were less than 10,000 American bison left in North America. Today that number has grown to 30,000, and they are still a protected species, and many herds exist on conservations.

Fun fact: You can also find American bison in Russia. This should be no surprise, as it has long been accepted that North America was populated by humans moving from Russia to the new continent via the land bridge that has since sunk beneath the ocean.

Meanwhile, European bison were almost completely wiped out. They were only brought back through careful breeding and conservation efforts. All European bison live on conservation areas, and they are highly dependent on controlled ecosystems for their survival.

Water buffalo vs Cape buffalo (and others)

Buffalo are of still of the Bovidae family, but they are of a different genus. They are usually sorted into two subgenera: Cape buffalo and Water buffalo. However, these are actually just the two most common subtypes of buffalo in their regions, namely Africa and Asia, respectively.

There are some extreme differences between the Asian and African buffalo. First, African buffalo are smaller, weighing in at around 500 to 900 kg, while Water buffalo are much larger at 700 to 1200 kg. Water buffalo have larger horns with a bigger arc.

The Water buffalo of Asia are of the Bubalus genus of Bovinae. These animals are often considered the living tractors of the East. They are used as often for transportation and ploughing as any other purpose. Even though they are of the same family and have some similarities in appearance, Water buffalo are of a completely different subgenus than African buffalo.

African buffalo encompass more than just Cape buffalo (of the Syncerus caffer). Cape buffalo are the most commonly seen in Africa, but if you go in search of ancient trees you’ll find the Forest buffalo, or Syncerus caffer nanus. If you go on safari, you might even get to see a Sudanese buffalo, or Syncerus caffer brachyceros.

You’ll also see differences between Asia and Africa as to how these buffalo are used. In Africa, buffalo are completely wild, and are usually hunted for meat and hides. In Asia, Water buffalo are mostly domesticated herds, used as much for transportation and ploughing as they are for their more baser uses.

The hoofs of the different types of buffalo vary depending on their habitat. Water buffalo exist in wetter places, and therefore their hooves have spread at the toe so that they have more support for their damp lifestyle. By contrast, the hoof of the Cape buffalo is slightly harder to withstand the rough terrain that they inhabit.

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