Flat Creek Inn

Bison vs. Buffalo: What’s the Difference?

Image credit: Jack Dykinga

You know those big, humped mammals with curved horns? The ones in the picture above? Yeah, those. Some call them bison, and some call them buffalo. Is one right? What’s the difference? Okay, okay—we’ll answer your questions.

What is a bison?

A bison (bison bison—and yes, that is its Latin name) is the proper name of the animal we’re referring to, scientifically speaking. There are two distinct species of bison: the plains bison and the woods bison. (The ones you see here in Wyoming are the plains variety, while the woods bison mostly live in Canada.) We wrote a weirdly controversial blog post about them once. (Read the comments!) There’s also a European bison, which live—get this!—in Europe. 

Okay, so what’s a buffalo then? 

If you call a bison “buffalo,” the park rangers aren’t going to swoop in and arrest you. Scientists might give you a disdainful glance and not talk to you at parties, though. That’s because “buffalo” is more properly applied the animals from Africa and Asia, commonly called water buffalo or cape buffalo. They look like this:

Water buffalo are bathing in a lake in Sri Lanka (credit: Byrdyak)

Where does the confusion come from?

There are a few likely explanations. The most likely explanation? Early settlers saw bison and thought they looked like buffalo, so that’s what they called them. Like so many linguistic errors, it got passed down until it passed into common usage. The song “Home on the Range” probably contributed as well, lying to an entire generation that “the deer and the buffalo” roam on the plains. 

Does it really matter?

Not really. If we respect these majestic creatures, give them space, and appreciate their presence in the land we call home, that’s what really matters. 


This post is brought to you by Flat Creek Inn.

Ryan Kunz is a copywriter and freelance writer who writes on a variety of topics, including media, the outdoors, and whatever else strikes his fancy. He knows a good joke about this topic:

Q: How did the buffalo say goodbye to his child before school?
A: "Bye, son."

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up to receive emails with discounts from Flat Creek Inn!