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Are bison and buffalo the same animal?

Happy National Bison Day! Celebrated the first Saturday in November, America's National Mammal has a movement starting in 2012 to thank for the push to recognize their majesty. The United States Senate signed resolutions yearly supporting the passage of such a proclamation and on May 9, 2016, President Barack Obama signed the law making the American bison the national mammal of the United States. But what about the buffalo? Are they the same animal?

You've likely heard of Buffalo Bill, stories of where the buffalo roamed, and other instances about the largest land mammal in North America. Spoiler alert, those are all wrong, it's bison, and only bison, that live in North America.

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. Historians believe that early European explorers are likely to blame for the mix up, 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 postulate 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.

Another simple way to tell a buffalo from a bison is to look at its horns. Cape buffalo horns resemble a handlebar mustache; they have a thick, helmet-like base and curl down, then back up. A water buffalo’s horns are large, long and curved in a crescent, while a bison’s horns are typically sharp and shorter than the average buffalo’s.

Male bison weigh up to 2,000 pounds and stand up to 6 feet tall. While cows may be smaller at 1,000 pounds and up to 5 feet tall, they’re still powerful. Bison live up to 20 years.

Full-grown bison have a dark brown to black, thick shaggy coat. However, when they’re born, calves have a reddish coat. Their fur insulates them during even the coldest winters.

While giant herds once covered the plains, from Alaska to Northern Mexico, they were nearly decimated by the 1800s. It’s estimated that 30 to 100 million bison roamed the Great Plains before 1800. But by the 1980s, fewer than 1,000 remained. Though the American bison population has since recovered, the species is still considered near threatened, and these animals depend heavily on conservation efforts for survival. Today, about 30,000 American bison survive in conservation herds. Another approximately 500,000 individuals are managed commercially as livestock. Bison populate all 50 states living in national parks, refuges, tribal, and private lands.

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