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American BisonDon’t call me buffalo—I’m a bison with a wooly head, short horns and a humpback. Photo by Jack Dykinga | U.S. Agricultural Research Service.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

KAREN HOCHMAN is Editorial Director of THE NIBBLE.

 

 

June 2006
Last Updated August 2010

Product Reviews / Main Nibbles / Meat & Poultry

Bison Vs. Buffalo: The Difference

That Buffalo Is Actually An American Bison!

CAPSULE REPORT: The most misidentified creature in the animal kingdom must be the poor bison. Unless some billionaire leaves funds for a reeducation campaign, it will forever be called the buffalo by most people—due in no small part to the song, “Home On The Range.” The beast, an American native, was misnamed by the Europeans who first saw it and likened it to the buffalo of Asia and Africa. It’s  not even a close relative, but zoologists didn’t have a chance to correct even the government, which minted the “buffalo” nickel...and doesn’t want to be corrected. But, the term “buffalo” has become part of the vernacular. This is Page 1 of a three-page article. Click on the black links below to visit other pages.

 

Buffalo Vs. Bison: Overview

When you see the meat in the stores or on restaurant menus, do you wonder what the difference between bison and buffalo? The answer is: a species, an ocean and two continents. The meat you see is, properly, bison meat. Why it is called buffalo by many—even those who produce it—is a story that will unfold here. The [incorrect] term has become so colloquial, it is accepted. Our own government minted the buffalo nickel, after all. But, calling a turkey a peacock doesn’t make it so. So let’s take a look at the how the poor bison ended up with something else’s name...and then take up your own grassroots movement to give it its due by sharing the story.

Introducing The Bison

The animal that inhabits North America is a bison of the genus and species Bison bison; “buffalo” is a misnomer, although the word is pervasive and even articles about bison refer to “buffalo.” Although both bison and buffalo belong to the same family, Bovidae (as do domesticated cattle), they are distinctly different animals. True buffalo, the African or Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) and the Asian Water Buffalo (Bubalus bubalis, of the family Bovidae) are native only to Africa and Asia, respectively, and are not closely related to each other.
  Asian Water Buffalo
This is the animal that is properly called buffalo—the Asian Water Buffalo, progenitors of the European buffalo, whose milk is used to make buffalo mozzarella. It has a smooth—not wooly—head and long, curved horns. It is known as the “water buffalo” because it has adapted to, and enjoys being in, water. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

That delicious mozzarella di bufala, water buffalo mozzarella, is made from the milk of the Asian Water Buffalo (photo at right), which was brought to Italy from Asia in the 1400s.

Within the Bison genus, there are two subspecies of bison in North America, the Plains bison (mainly in the U.S. and Canada) and the Wood bison (mainly in Canada). There is also a European bison, Bison bonasus, called the wisent, (pronounced WEE-sent), that lives in the Caucasus region of Russia and in Poland in the Bielowesz Forest.

  Bison
Probably the most misidentified creatures in the animal
kingdom, these are BISON, not buffalo.
Photo of Plains
bison in Montana by Craig Johnson | SXC.

The bison is the largest land mammal to roam North America since the end of the Ice Age. It is a descendant of ancient animals that crossed the Bering Strait land bridge some 300,000 years ago.

Historians speculate that early European explorers who first discovered the North American species likened the unknown American bison to the more familiar African and Asian buffalo. While a misnomer, the term “buffalo” has been used interchangeably with “bison” ever since and is entrenched as a colloquialism in our culture and language. But that doesn’t make it correct!

The popular folk song, Home On The Range, asks to “give me a home where the buffalo roam.” It’s a major romanticizer of the American frontier. Who wants to take on history? And, who in the U.S. government will accept responsibility for creating the buffalo nickel instead of the bison nickel?

 

Continue To Page 2: Bison Vs. Buffalo & Cattle

Go To The Article Index Above

 

READ MORE ABOUT BISON IN OUR REVIEW OF
BLACKWING BISON

 


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