If you are referring to the magnificent creatures that have evolved and lived on the savannahs and prairies of North America for millions of years, then Nothing!! Alternatively, if you are standing in Asia, India, or Africa, and pointing at a ruminant animal native to that region, they are totally a different species than what North Americans call the buffalo.
Ruminants are mammals that are able to acquire nutrients from plant-based foods by fermenting the plant-based ingestion in a specialized stomach prior to digestion. Common examples are cattle, goats, sheep, yaks, antelope, deer, giraffes and all genus’ with the common name of buffalo.
Many people ask this question, “What is the difference between buffalo and bison?” As our cross-continental cultures continue to merge, the answer becomes more difficult.
The Answer (from a North American perspective):
- For animals native to North America, the buffalo and bison are the exact same animal
- Bison is the scientific genus name (Bovinae Bison) and very often a common name
- Buffalo is the traditional common name
- American Buffalo or American Bison are more precise common names for Bovinae Bison
The common name for a given animal (also known as English name, colloquial name, popular name, or farmer’s name) is a name that is based on the normal language of everyday local or regional life; this kind of name is often contrasted with the scientific name for the same animal, which is Latinized. Scientific names are often replaced by common names because the scientific name is often hard to memorize or pronounce.
For the non-geneticists of the crowd:
- Bovinae Bison designates the scientific sub-family as Bovinae (of the family Bovidae) and the genus as Bison
- Plains Bison (predominantly native to the United States) are further designated as Bison bison bison for the sub-species of plains (bison)
- Wood Bison (predominantly native to Canada) are further designated as Bison bison athabascae for the sub-species of wood (bison)
Bison are the only ruminants that have had both a traditional common name (buffalo), and then later, an additional common name (bison) that is the same as their genus and species name. All other ruminants on planet Earth are referred to by a common name that is different than their genus or species name.
One may ask, why does this magnificent animal appear to have two common names, “bison” and “buffalo”? It seems North American European settlers first named the animal buffalo. While there is considerable debate on the origin or suitability of this original naming, the majority of North American European settlement referred to bovinae bison as the buffalo. Even today, many refer to the animal as buffalo or American buffalo. Perhaps because no other ruminant species in North America is more historically significant, many individuals who either raise bison, steward their re-emergence, or are just fascinated with their existence, refer to the animal as bison, or American bison.
The American Buffalo (bison) is considered by most as an American Icon. It is also the National Mammal of the United States. For millions of years, bison have roamed the plains playing an integral part in the health of prehistoric, native, and current day people. In North America there is a tremendous amount of pride surrounding this animal, particularly due to a handful of responsible stewards. Those stewards, in the early 1900’s, snatched the bison from the hands of extinction and delivered it to North Americans, as the thriving, vibrant, National Mammal that exists today.
Asia, India, and Africa also have large ruminants commonly referred to as buffalo in their own native lands. What we will call, this “cross-continent name overlap” is really the root of the of the confusion. Buffalo is neither a species name or genus name, anywhere. Across the globe, buffalo is a common name, like cattle. Because buffalo is a common name, the name is specific to a region. Many people in Asia, India, and Africa, who have never laid eyes on the splendor of an American Buffalo, also refer to their beloved native beasts as buffalo. These buffalo are also economically significant to their own native regions. Asian (Water) buffalo are important for their milk and meat. African (Cape) buffalo mostly run wild on the savannas of Africa.
Below, are examples of Common Names and Genus Names, (sorted by genus).
I hope this helps your understanding.