Buffalo or Bison?

Everyday Einstein explains the difference between a buffalo and a bison--which is more complicated than you might think!

Lee Falin, PhD ,
July 20, 2014
Episode #108

Recently, someone asked me to explain the difference between a buffalo and a bison--a question that has a more complicated answer, and history, than you might imagine.  .

Back in the episode on interspecies breeding, I mentioned how much scientists love to classify living things by grouping them together according to how we think they are related. Historically, this was done based on morphology, which is a fancy word meaning, "the physical characteristics of the organism."

But once scientists gained the ability to sequence genomes, a whole new method of putting things into groups opened up.

Even with fancy genome sequencing, though, there is a bit of disagreement about the proper way to compare organisms. Should you rely more on morphology or genetics? If you decide to use genetics, which parts of an organism’s genetic sequence should be used in these comparisons?

Leaving these disagreements aside, let’s take a look at how buffalo and bison are currently classified, in order to see if we can better understand the differences between them.

Kingdoms, Phylums, Classes, Oh My!

The classifications start out pretty simply by putting things into kingdoms. Both buffalo and bison are in the animal kingdom. From there we split our organisms up into phylums. Buffalo and bison, both having backbones, manage to stay together yet again in the chordate phylum.

Each phylum is then broken up into classes, and both the buffalo and bison still end up in the mammal class. Next, classes are broken up into orders, and buffalo and bison both end up in the order artiodactyla, more commonly known as the even-toed ungulates--which are hoofed animals with an even number of toes.

Keep it in the Family

So far the buffalo and bison seem pretty similar, right? They even remain together when the orders are split into families, both ending up in the bovid family, and from there are both placed into the bovinae sub-family, which literally means, “as the cows.”

But now things start to get interesting! Within the bovine sub-family we have several smaller groups. Each of these groups is referred to as a “genus." The first genus of note is the Bos genus, which contains the species Bos taurus, the official name for domestic cows.

Here, our buffalo and bison friends are forced to part ways. But which genus the buffalo ends up in depends upon which type of buffalo we’re talking about.


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