Buffalo or bison? There’s a difference

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The buffalo don’t roam in South Dakota but bison do. And the indigenous Lakota residents who lived here before Europeans named them tatanka. In other words, North Dakota State University got it right.

Although the words buffalo and bison are often used interchangeably to describe the large mammals that live in Custer State Park and other parts of South and North Dakota, those animals are technically bison.

It’s bison that will be rounded up this weekend at Custer State Park. But the event is called a buffalo roundup. There are also plenty of other events and venues that call bison buffalo. South Dakota has a town and a county called Buffalo. There’s even a Buffalo, New York, which is home to the Buffalo Bisons minor league baseball team.

The Smithsonian National Zoo, Modern Farmer, Brittanica and a host of other sources and websites tell us buffalo are native to Asia and Africa and bison are native to North America and Europe.

Brittanica.com cuts people some slack for using buffalo to describe bison. “It’s easy to understand why people confuse bison and buffalo. Both are large, horned, ox-like animals of the Bovidae family,” the website said.

The animals that are rounded up each year at Custer State Park are bison. They have a hump at their shoulders and bigger heads than buffalo. They also have beards and thick coats they shed in winter and summer.

buffalo-born-at-custer-state-park_335567530630
Bison, including a calf, at Custer State Park in 2019.

The African Cape buffalo have handlebar horns. The Asian water buffalo have large horns that can span six feet, according to Modern Farmer.

Bison came to America from somewhere else, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The American bison’s ancestors can be traced to southern Asia. “Bison made their way to America by crossing the ancient land bridge that once connected Asia with North America during the Pliocene Epoch, some 400,000 years ago,” the DOI website said.

But how did bison come to be called buffalo?

Buffalo may stem from the French word for beef, which is boeuf, and DOI credited that information to historians.

The online Merriam Webster dictionary has a longer explanation. “In Latin the form was first bubalus and later bufalus. This Latin word for wild ox passed into Italian as bufalo and into Spanish as búfalo. From these languages, the English then picked up the word, spelling it buffalo, and when English settlers arrived in America, they gave the name to the big, shaggy animal that is also called bison,” the online dictionary said.

The word bison means wild ox, with Latin, Proto-Germanic, and Middle English linguistic roots., according to az animals.

The ox thing is what apparently confused people a long time ago who mistakenly called bison by the name buffalo because the mammals reminded them of oxen or buffalo.

Early explorers were confused, Brittanica said. So were early settlers, according to Modern Farmer.

Bison are large. Males can weigh as much as 2,200 pounds. They may stand is fields and eat grass for long periods of time but don’t let that fool you. They are fast. The National Zoo says bison can run up to 30 mph.

Bison can smell and hear very well but can’t see very well. So if they are startled, they can quickly stampede.

The National Zoo says “Bison are tough, confident animals that will often react aggressively when they sense danger. Many human activities can seem threatening to bison, so it’s always important to keep plenty of distance.”

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