What's the Difference Between Bison and Buffalo?

istock
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!

Meet Gracie: The Resident 'Bark Ranger' at Montana's Glacier National Park

NPS/A.W. Biel
NPS/A.W. Biel

Gracie isn't like the other park rangers at Glacier National Park in Montana: She’s not afraid to run after bighorn sheep and mountain goats in order to keep them at a safe distance from visitors. And while she doesn’t earn a salary, she’s content to work for belly rubs.

That’s because Gracie is a trained border collie who became the first employee-owned dog to become a “bark ranger” at a U.S. national park. She was accepted into Glacier’s wildlife shepherding program in July 2016 and has been protecting both humans and wildlife alike ever since.

One of Gracie's main duties is to keep sheep and goats away from areas with high foot traffic, like the Logan Pass parking lot. Through habituation, many of the park’s native species have begun to feel comfortable around humans, and sometimes even approach them. This is problematic for a couple of reasons.

“When closely approached or provided with human food, bighorn sheep and mountain goats can become aggressive; each has the ability to kick, bite, gore, or trample when feeling threatened,” the National Park Service (NPS) writes on its website. “This can cause injury—or in rare cases, death—to people and can cause the animal to be lethally removed from the population.”

In the winter, Gracie also helps shepherd deer out of highly populated areas in an effort to keep predators—namely mountain lions—away from people. Gracie completed a 10-week training program in Florence, Montana, where she learned how to control her direction and speed. She also knows when to retreat at the command of her owner, Mark Biel, who works as the park's natural resources program manager.

Gracie’s hard work has not gone unnoticed either. Her Instagram account, which chronicles the life of a #WorkingDog, has more than 17,000 followers. Check out some of the photos and videos below to see this very good girl in action.

Every time Gracie moves wildlife, Ranger Mark records how many animals were moved, how long it took to move them, where they went, and how long they stayed out of the area. This helps us evaluate the effectiveness of the program and learn about wildlife habits. The data show that in the park headquarters area, the deer have four established “escape routes” they favor when heading into the woods. Watch as this deer stops to decide which way to go, then heads to the left, toward the woods and one of those routes. Turning to the right would have taken it away from Gracie, but further into the housing area. This is an example of the program working as it’s intended. When pressured from a distance, the deer decides that the more comfortable place to be is in the woods, instead of further inside the populated area. 🐾🦌 #parkscience #barkrangergracie #barkranger #whitetail #keepwildlifewild​ @glaciernps @glacierconservancy @wind_river_bear_institute #workingbordercollie #workingdogsofig #glaciernationalpark #glacier

A post shared by Bark Ranger (@barkrangernps) on

What's the Difference Between a Rabbit and a Hare?

iStock.com/Carmen Romero
iStock.com/Carmen Romero

Hippity, hoppity, Easter's on its way—and so is the eponymous Easter bunny. But aside from being a magical, candy-carrying creature, what exactly is Peter Cottontail: bunny, rabbit, or hare? Or are they all just synonyms for the same adorable animal?

In case you've been getting your fluffy, long-eared mammals mixed up, we've traveled down the rabbit hole to set the record straight. Although rabbits and hares belong to the same grass-munching family—called Leporidae—they're entirely different species with unique characteristics. It would be like comparing sheep and goats, geneticist Steven Lukefahr of Texas A&M University told National Geographic.

If you aren't sure which animal has been hopping around and helping themselves to the goodies in your vegetable garden, take a closer look at their ears. In general, hares have longer ears and larger bodies than rabbits. Rabbits also tend to be more social creatures, while hares prefer to keep to themselves.

As for the baby animals, they go by different names as well. Baby hares are called leverets, while newborn rabbits are called kittens or kits. So where exactly do bunnies fit into this narrative? Originally, the word bunny was used as a term of endearment for a young girl, but its meaning has evolved over time. Bunny is now a cutesy, childlike way to refer to both rabbits and hares—although it's more commonly associated with rabbits these days. With that said, the Easter bunny is usually depicted as a rabbit, but the tradition is thought to have originated with German immigrants who brought their legend of an egg-laying hare called "Osterhase" to America.

In other ambiguous animal news, the case of Bugs Bunny is a little more complicated. According to scientist and YouTuber Nick Uhas, the character's long ears, fast speed, and solitary nature seem to suggest he's a hare. However, in the cartoon, Bugs is shown burrowing underground, which doesn't jive with the fact that hares—unlike most rabbits—live aboveground. "We can draw the conclusion that Bugs may be a rabbit with hare-like behavior or a hare with rabbit nesting habits," Uhas says.

The conversation gets even more confusing when you throw jackrabbits into the mix, which aren't actually rabbits at all. Jackrabbits are various species of large hare that are native to western North America; the name itself is a shortened version of "jackass rabbit," which refers to the fact that the animal's ears look a little like a donkey's.

A jackrabbit
Connor Mah, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

As Mark Twain once famously wrote about the creature, "He is just like any other rabbit, except that he is from one-third to twice as large, has longer legs in proportion to his size, and has the most preposterous ears that ever were mounted on any creature but the jackass." (Fun fact: Black-tailed jackrabbits' extra-long ears actually help them stay cool in the desert. The blood vessels in their ears enlarge when it gets hot, causing blood to flow to their ears and ridding their bodies of excess heat.)

Rabbits, hares, and jackrabbits all have one thing in common, though: They love a good salad. So if you happen across one of these hopping creatures, give them some grass or weeds—and skip the carrots. Bugs Bunny may have loved the orange vegetable, but most hares and rabbits would prefer leafy greens.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER