Other than the bald eagle, there is no more iconic American animal than the buffalo.

Buffalo is the name of two dozen U.S. towns and one large city. Buffalo nickels filled many a piggy bank in the early 20th century. The beast makes an appearance on several state flags and the helmet of an NFL football team. No less than five U.S. Navy ships have carried the name, as does a Ken Burns documentary: The American Buffalo.

There’s just one problem: The large, shaggy animal of American lore isn’t a buffalo. It’s a bison.

Sure, they’re distant relatives in the cloven-hoofed, grass-munching Bovidae family. Yet distinct species in several ways, especially when it comes to geography. Bison are native to North America and Europe, while the buffalo resides in Asia and Africa. But we’ll get to that.

american bison yellowstone national park

Bison spotted snacking in Yellowstone National Park © Megan Brief

An enduring mystery is how the names buffalo and bison became interchangeable for the North American animal. Historians and scholars tend to blame it on French trappers, hunters, and explorers, who were among the first Europeans to come across the beasts. The French word boeuf was often used to describe the animal, although it’s also possible they viewed them as long-haired versions of the Old World buffel (buffalo).

The French phrasing eventually passed to British colonists who almost universally called them buffalo. When English settlers established Jamestown and Plymouth in the early 17th century, an estimated 30-60 million bison roamed North America. Their range was immense, extending all the way from the Appalachians to the Nevada desert and from the boreal forest of northern Canada to the cactus-studded landscapes of northern Mexico.

Bison were integral to the culture, lifestyle and survival of many Native American peoples, who utilized the animal for food, shelter, clothing, tools, religious rituals, and even fire (buffalo chips).

Herd of bison in Yellowstone winter

Herd of bison in Yellowstone 

It’s hard to imagine now, but North American bison herds once rivaled and perhaps surpassed the Great Migration of wildebeest and zebra that tramp across Africa’s Serengeti Plains each year. So great were their numbers it’s believed the Natchez Trace between Nashville and the Mississippi River was originally blazed by migrating bison.

The history of the American West is incomplete without the story of their demise. Suffice to say that by the turn of the 20th century, there were around 1,000 individual bison left in the United States and only a few dozen wild bison, all of them in Yellowstone National Park.

“Yellowstone saved the last of the wild bison in North America when other plains bison were hunted to near extinction,” says Chris Geremia, the park’s lead bison biologist. “A remnant herd of about 23 animals living in remote areas of the park were the only wild bison that survived the mass hunting of the 1800s.

“These animals were first protected by the military and later, the National Park Service. Through 152 years of efforts, these animals recovered to 5,000-6,000 animals today. This is the largest free-ranging, wild population on the planet.”

Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley are home to Yellowstone’s two bison herds. They have become the park’s most photographed animal and have become so acclimatized to vehicle traffic they often saunter onto park roads.

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park bison

Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park

Because they seem more like over-sized stuffed animals than creatures that could do serious damage, some folks figure it’s okay to sidle up right beside them for selfies . . . that becomes viral videos of those people getting trampled, gored or tossed into the air by the bison. Maybe Yellowstone’s bison should come with a warning label: “Violating this animal’s personal space could be dangerous to your health!”

According to the National Bison Association (NBA), there are now around 200,000 bison living on ranches and public lands in the U.S. and around 160,000 in private and public lands in Canada. While Yellowstone boasts the largest public herd, a dozen other units of the National Park Service nurture bison herds, including Grand Teton, Glacier, Badlands, and Teddy Roosevelt.

Natural Habitat Adventures offers the possibility of getting up close (but not too personal) with bison on several tours including the Hidden Yellowstone & Grand Teton Safari and Glacier & Waterton – An International Treasure.

The American bison (Bison bison) does have two close cousins. The wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) of northern Canada and Alaska, and the wisent (Bison bonasus) of eastern Europe, which is sometimes called the European buffalo. In both cases, there are only a few thousand animals, most of them in national parks or nature preserves.

Bison herd at Custer State Park - South Dakota Black Hills

Bison herd at Custer State Park, South Dakota Black Hills

A buffalo is literally a whole different animal. There are two main types: The African buffalo  (Syncerus caffer) and its five subspecies, in particular the cape buffalo of Southern and East Africa; and the water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) of Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East.

Considered one of the “Big Five” of African wildlife, cape buffalo have earned a fearsome reputation as the continent’s most dangerous animal. They’ve been dubbed the widow maker and the black death, and lauded in the writings of big game hunters like Ernest Hemingway and Robert Ruark.

“His horns are ideally adapted for hooking, and one hook can unzip a man from crotch to throat,” is how Ruark described a cape buffalo. “He delights in dancing on the prone carcass of a victim, and the man who provides the platform is generally collected with a trowel.”

Truth be told, hippos and crocodiles kill or injure far more humans each year than buffalo. Yet their deadly image is bolstered by videos of buffalo easily fending off lion attacks.

African Cape Buffalo

African Cape Buffalo

“Buffalos, particularly old and lone bulls that have left the herd can be very dangerous at times and act with no warning especially when wounded,” says Fred Krantz, a field guide trainer for Bushwise in South Africa. “They are one of the few animals that once they decide to charge, they will not stop until it is carried through.”

Krantz adds that not every buffalo encounter ends up being a serious confrontation. In most cases when buffalo detect the presence of humans on foot by sight or smell they tend to run away, “as all animals perceive humans as a threat regardless of your intention. However, it must be said that if a buffalo feels threatened at close quarters and the options for them to escape are limited, you can very confidently predict that it will defend itself aggressively.”

Among the best places to observe and photograph cape buffalo in the wild are Chobe National Park in Botswana, Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, and the greater Kruger ecosystem in South Africa.

Cape Buffalo

Cape Buffalo

Several Nat Hab safaris offer an excellent chance to observe and photograph cape buffalo in the wild, including Secluded Botswana and Secluded South Africa.

Water buffalo are ubiquitous in the rice paddies of Thailand, Vietnam, China and elsewhere in eastern and southern Asia. Their worldwide population is more than 200 million, and according to a research paper recently published in the journal Nature, “More people globally depend on the water buffalo than any other domesticated species.”

In addition to plowing fields and pulling carts, water buffalo supply meat, milk and even cheese—like the mozzarella (mozzarella di bufala) that derives from water buffalo in southern Italy.

Besides a wholly different appearance, one thing that sets water buffalo apart from the American bison and the African cape buffalo is a gentle temperament. You wanna snap a selfie standing next to a buffalo? Next time, choose a water buffalo.

Water Buffalo

Water Buffalo