What's the Difference Between Bison and Buffalo?

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istock

On a recent trip out west, I visited Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, where I saw plenty of bison dotting the plains. Or were they buffalo? Is there a difference between the two?

"In North America, the names are used interchangeably for the species Bison bison," Ross MacPhee, Curator of the Department of Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History, tells mental_floss in an email. But though both bison and buffalo are bovids, or members of the cattle family, there are some definite differences between them. "Elsewhere—in non-English-speaking Europe, for example—a bison is the European Bison, Bison bonasus, a species very closely related to B. bison," MacPhee says. "A buffalo is either a Cape Buffalo Syncerus (Africa), or Water Buffalo Bubalus (South Asia), neither of which are closely related to either kind of bison." So if you're yearning for a home where the buffalo roam, you'd better move to another continent. 

To tell the difference between a buffalo and a bison, "just look at the horns,” MacPhee says. “[Bison’s] are like typical cow horns; in buffalo, they are relatively huge, sweeping arcs." Bison also have a large shoulder hump. (Telling the difference between the two species of bison is slightly tougher. "An average male European bison has less hair, especially in the cape, or mane," MacPhee says. "Allegedly there is a difference in the angulation of the horns, but I don't see it, or it's too variable to be useful.")

Top: Water Buffalo. Photo by Steve Garvie via Wikimedia Commons. Bottom: Cape Buffalo. Gouldingkin via Wikimedia Commons.

No buffalo have ever lived in North America, according to MacPhee, so how come we call bison by that name? According to the National Park Service, when early explorers came to North America—at which point there may have been as many as 60 million bison on the continent—they thought the animals resembled old world buffalo, and so they called them that. The word comes from the Portuguese bufalo, or "water buffalo," from the Latin word bufalus, a variant of bubalus, which meant "wild ox."

Bison came very close to extinction. In 1883, there were approximately 40 million of the animals in North America; by the 1900s, hunting had reduced the population to under 1000 animals. The bison you see in the National Parks today were bred from just a few individuals from the New York City Zoo and Yellowstone.

Finally, here is a delightful but also very serious flier you receive when you enter Yellowstone National Park. Keep a safe distance from the animals, everybody!

A Team of Cigarette Butt-Collecting Birds Are Keeping a French Theme Park Litter-Free

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iStock

The six rooks pecking at litter within the Puy du Fou theme park in Les Epesses, France, aren't unwelcome pests: They're part of the staff. As AFP reports, the trained birds have been dispatched to clean up garbage and cigarettes butts from the park grounds.

Rooks are a member of the corvid family, a group of intelligent birds that also includes ravens and crows. At Puy du Fou, an educational amusement park with attractions inspired by various periods from French history, the rooks will flit around park, pick up any bits of litter that haven't been properly disposed of, and deliver them to a receptacle in exchange for a treat. At least that's how the system is set up to work: The full team of six rooks has only been on the job since August 13.

Employing birds as trash collectors may seem far-fetched, but the experiment has precedent. The Dutch startup Crowded Cities recently started training crows to gather cigarette butts using a vending machine-like device. Once the crows were taught to associate the rig with free peanuts, the machine was tweaked so that it only dispensed food when the crow nudged a cigarette butt resting on a ledge into the receptacle. The cigarette butts were eventually removed, and the birds figured out that they had to find the litter in the wild if they wanted to continue receiving their snacks.

Crowded Cities had planned to conduct more research on the method's effectiveness, as well as the potentially harmful effects of tobacco on crows, before bringing their vending machines to public spaces. Puy du Fou, meanwhile, has become one of the first—if not the first—businesses to fully implement the strategy on a major scale.

Even if it doesn't prove to be practical, Puy du Fou president Nicolas de Villiers told AFP that cleaning up the park is only part of the goal. He also hopes the birds will demonstrate that "nature itself can teach us to take care of the environment."

[h/t AFP]

Wasps Are Getting Drunk and Terrorizing People in England

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iStock

Go home, wasps. You’re drunk.

Thousands of “boozy wasps” are terrorizing the UK after imbibing the nectar of fermented fruit and cider left behind at pub gardens, Travel + Leisure reports. Experts warn that there’s a greater risk of getting stung at this time of year, especially while boozing outdoors or eating sweet foods.

The sudden change in diet highlights an issue with the insects' food supply: Wasps typically drink a kind of sugar-spit produced by larvae, but the hive queens have already stopped laying larvae by this time of year, and wasps have been unable to get their fill. They also carry a genetic trait that makes them go crazy for sugary foods and alcohol, and other factors have escalated the problem. For one, last year's cold winter translated to an early wasp season, which allowed them to build larger-than-normal nests.

"Wasps have built absolutely massive nests and, now that all the larvae have grown up and the queen has stopped laying eggs, the colonies have a workforce with nothing to do—and nothing to eat," pest control expert Shane Jones told the Daily Mail. "So they go down to the pub, obviously."

What they really want is sugar, which can be found in fermented fruit, cider, and fruity beers. Because wasps are lightweights, just one sip will get them drunk—and you don’t want to see them when they’re tipsy. "Wasps can't handle their booze, so they get tanked-up and fighty—like lager louts,” Jones says. Alcohol can make the insects more irritable and more likely to sting people.

The best way to avoid the problem, according to Dee Ward-Thompson, technical manager at the British Pest Control Association, is to keep the sugary goodies they're craving out of sight. “Maybe the most influential factor on wasp numbers is when people do not dispose of their waste properly, especially food with a high sugar content, such as fruit," Ward-Thompson told the Nottingham Post. “We always advise waste to be securely bagged and held within a clean container, away from where young children might play.”

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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