Contrary to popular belief, bison and buffaloes aren’t the same animal.
Years of pop culture references, such as Where the Buffalo Roam, have caused Americans to blend the two animals, but while they’re similar, they’re completely different species.
In fact, there are no buffalo native to the United States — all of those animals are American bison.
What Are the Characteristics of the Bison?
The biggest difference between bison and buffaloes is the presence of a hump. American and European bison both have a hump at their shoulders, while water buffaloes and cape buffaloes, which are native to Africa and Asia respectively, have no hump. Bison also have short, sharp horns and a beard, neither of which are present in buffaloes.
Other characteristics of bison include their large size and grazing posture, as bison tend to drop their heads to eat grass. Bison can stand roughly six feet tall, and females weigh roughly 800 to 1,000 pounds, while males weigh 1,000 – 2,000 pounds at full adulthood.
What Animals are Closely Related to Bison?
The closest relative to the American bison is the European bison, which is the only other species that shares the Bison genus. More distant relatives include cattle, sheep, goats and buffaloes, as all of these animals are part of the Bovidae family. This family includes hooved herbivores, with all males in this family possessing two horns on their heads.
How do Bison Help Their Habitat?
When bison roam, it’s very beneficial to the lands they call home. As they walk on the grasslands, their hooves help aerate the soil by burying seeds and creating pockets of moisture in the ground, making it easier for grass to absorb moisture and thrive long-term.
Because of the benefits they provide to their habitat, bison are known as a keystone species. A keystone species is a kind of animal that plays such a role in their ecosystem that if something were to happen to that species, the ecosystem would be greatly and negatively impacted.
Are Bison Threatened?
Not anymore. In the 1500s, long before the United States was formed, roughly 30 to 60 million bison roamed the Great Plains region of what would eventually become American territory. When homesteading became popular in the 19th century, traders began to hunt bison for both their meat and their fur, using the latter for clothing.
The westward expansion of the United States was devastating for the bison, and by the 1880s, only 325 remained in the country. Fortunately, by this time, the U.S. government and its states recognized the damage they had caused and began enacting policies to protect the remaining bison.
Under the direction of William Hornaday, bison were gradually reintroduced to the Midwest, and their population has increased to roughly 275,000 in both public and private herds. Although this is a far cry from where they once were, their numbers have stabilized to the point where bison are considered not threatened.
Where Do Bison Live?
As part of the efforts to rebuild the bison population, many now live on the National Bison Range in Montana. Other protected spots exist in Nebraska, Oklahoma and North Dakota; free-range bison can be found in both Wyoming and Utah.
Bison will likely never reach the population they had before the 19th century, but efforts to promote their existence and educate the public of their importance have been successful. Today, the bison is the national mammal of the United States, and its resurrected population means future generations should be able to enjoy these majestic creatures for years to come.