American “Buffalo” are Not Actually Buffalo
Today I found out American “buffalo” are not actually buffalo.
The American “buffalo” are actually bison. Specifically, they are “Bison bison”. The only true buffalo are the Asian water buffalo and the African buffalo.
The American bison are actually very closely related to the Wisent, which are European bison. American bison are also somewhat closely related to cattle. In fact, they can interbreed readily with cattle, something that buffalo have never been observed to do. Even in lab experiments, buffalo-cattle embryos have failed to ever reach maturity.
So why do we call American bison “buffalo”? There is some speculation that this simply came from Europeans associating them with African and Asian buffalo, giving them the same name. But this seems unlikely as American Bison strongly resemble the European wisent bison, much more so than the African or Asian buffalo. A more likely scenario is that they were named such because the American “buffalo” were primarily prized by Europeans for their hides. “Buffe” or “bufle” were commonly used as names, at that time, for any animal that provided a good hide for buff leather.
Another common myth surrounding American Bison is that there were massive herds, before the “white man” came to America, on the scale that Americans eventually encountered them at. In fact, evidence suggests that the Native Americans kept the bison populations regulated by various means. After the European diseases wiped out most of the Native Americans, the American Bison population exploded, becoming the most numerous large wild mammal on Earth until eventually hunted to near extinction within a few centuries after this population explosion. At their peak, it was estimated that there were nearly 100 million American Bison in existence, only a few centuries ago.
- Before horses and guns were introduced to Native Americans, hunting bison was a dangerous affair, with the bison being quite aggressive and hard to kill. One of the methods of hunting them that the Native Americans would use was to attempt to herd a large group of bison into chutes of rock, which lead to a cliff. They’d then incite a stampede with most of the herd falling to their deaths. The meat and skins could then be easily gathered.
American bison were eventually brought to near extinction by the late 19th century. The U.S. army sanctioned the whole-sale slaughter of the bison herds to allow cattle ranchers to establish themselves without competition. This also hurt the Native American tribes who depended on the bison herds for survival. The Native American tribes themselves, now armed with guns and horses, also contributed to the demise of the bison, killing about 1/3 of a million Bison per year in the southern plains alone.
- The bison hides were also extremely valuable around this same time. One single hide in good condition would bring in about $3. Made into a winter coat, it could bring in as much as $50. A single skilled hunter, such as Buffalo Bill Cody, could kill and skin as many as 100 bison in one day’s work. Around this same era, a common worker would only make a little under $1 a day.
- Buffalo Bill Cody is estimated to have killed around 20,000 bison in his lifetime. Ironically, he was one of the most outspoken supporters of plans to protect the bison populations through legislation. In the end, President Grant vetoed the bill that would have protected the herds, due to the frequent small wars the U.S. had to fight with the Plains Indians. By getting rid of the bison herds, it took away the Plains Indians primary food and clothing source.
American Bison meat is lower in fat and cholesterol than beef. This is largely why efforts have been made to cross-breed them, creating “beefalo”.
- Wild American bison are one of the most dangerous animals to encounter in the United States. In Yellowstone National Park alone, nearly five times as many people are killed by bison than by bears every year. The bison can reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour and are surprisingly nimble, making them difficult to avoid if they attack.
- Because of the cross breeding, while it’s estimated there are a few hundred thousand American bison remaining in the world, only about 14,000 or so of them are pure bison, the rest being mixed with cattle.
- The “American” bison has only been in America for around 10,000 years, having migrated across the Bering Strait.
- There are currently around 150 million water buffalo in the world today, with nearly all of them being in Asia.
- African buffalo are extremely aggressive. So much so, that they have never been successfully domesticated. They also have no common predators outside of humans as an adult African buffalo is fully capable of killing a single adult lion, crocodiles, and the like, making them one of the most dangerous animals in Africa along with Hippos. Lions will occasionally manage to get an adult buffalo on its own and then, together, can sometimes bring it down. But typically the herd will stick together to prevent this from happening. The herd will also attack any threat to any part of the herd. When a distress call is heard from a member of the herd, the buffalo will mob the attacker.
- African buffalo kill around 200 people a year.
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