20 Animals Similar To the American Bison (Visually, Environmentally & More)

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Plains bison are one of the most iconic animals in North America, and they have been part of the ecosystem ever since the ice age. Our furry friends can also take pride in being one of the largest and most powerful animals on the continent.

Being so well-known also means that bison are often compared to other animals. Because of their size, strength, appearance, and cultural importance, many people want to know how they compare with other animals. 

Join us in Floofmania as we gather some of the most well-known animals and see how close they are to the bison. Some may look like bison, and others might be related and helped people in similar ways.

7 Bison Look-Alikes

A bison standing amongs straws of tall grass and wild plants.

Members of the bovine family are found in almost all parts of the world, so it’s no surprise that a few might look like bison. From yaks in the steppes to buffalos in the Cape of Africa. Just one look at these animals is enough to show a family resemblance. 

1. Cattle And Dairy Cows are the Close Cousins of Bison

A group of diary cows standing around the camera, looking curiously.

The first animal that would come to people’s minds when comparing animals to bison is regular farm cattle. The bovines we find on farms are some of the bison’s closest relatives. While the average cow is much smaller and has a tamer appearance, there is still a strong family resemblance.

Some people even go as far as to call cattle a form of domesticated bison, though it might not be entirely scientifically correct. 

Like cattle, the bison has also been domesticated and many specimens live on ranches where they provide people with meat and clothing. 

A bison grazing amidst trees with a river passing through the forest behind it.

The biggest difference between bison and cattle is their size and temperament. Centuries of domestication have made cattle smaller and more docile so that they can be easier to manage by farmers. Even domesticated bison remain more aggressive and temperamental than your average cow.

Regular cattle are a foot shorter than bison, and many don’t even have horns! That doesn’t mean you should go out looking for trouble, though, as many cattle have been known to charge at people when provoked.

2. Buffalo Are Often Mistaken for Bison

Closeup of a buffalo standing among tall brown grass straws, a bird sitting on its shoulder bump.

Another close relative of bison is the buffalo; they are so close that people often use their names interchangeably. While they have a lot in common, there are also some clear differences.

For one, bison and buffalo live on different continents. Bison are native to North America and Europe, while buffalo are found in Asia and Africa. They also have big differences in their appearance. Bison are famous for their thick coats of fur and prominent humps, two things most buffalo lack.

But while buffalo may lack these features, they make up for it in their large horns. Buffalos tend to have more prominent horns. These curve up at the top of their heads like a handlebar mustache, compared to a bison’s smaller and less curved horns.

One thing they do have in common, though, is that you don’t want to get on either animal’s bad side. Both these bovines can easily become aggressive and are known to seriously injure people.

3. Yaks and Bison Are Both Culturally Significant to Native People

White yak standing on a barren ground with a wide body of water behind it and snowclad mountains on the other side.

Although they are worlds apart, a casual viewer could easily mistake a yak for a bison. Both these Bovidaes are famed for their hardiness as they can survive in harsh climates.

Yaks are a bit smaller than bison, reaching just under 5 feet in height (though wild yaks are said to grow even larger.) They make up for this by being heavier, though, as yaks can weigh as much as 2,600 pounds, which is even heavier than most bison! This extra bulk allows them to survive the harsh Central Asian mountainous climate. 

The worst weather that yaks and bison encounter has to be winter and to deal with that, both of these powerful animals are covered in thick, shaggy fur that can keep them warm most of the time.

While bison coats are found almost exclusively in dark browns or blacks, yaks tend to be a bit more varied in color. While many yaks tend to come in browns as well, lighter colors like white are not uncommon. Yaks’ fur is also longer, giving them a shaggier appearance whereas bison only have tufts of dense fur in certain parts of their bodies.

Both animals are held in high regard by their respective people and are carefully protected. 

Native Americans use the bison’s bones to manufacture artifacts important for various rituals and use their images in their homes. Meanwhile, the yak symbolizes the four elements and various natural resources for native Tibetans.

4. The Tamaraw Is the Bison’s Little Cousin

Many of the animals we’ve discussed so far are quite large, though not always as large as the bison, but now, let’s have a look at something a bit smaller! The Philippine island of Mindoro is home to the smallest Buffalo, the Tamaraw. 

They look every bit like their larger friends, with powerfully built bodies, broad noses, and a set of horns that grow up to three feet long. However, thanks to their tropical lifestyle, they lack the thick fur of bison, instead having short ash-black hair. 

Though, the most significant difference is that tamaraws are only about 4 four feet at the shoulder, meaning they are even shorter than some children. 

A big reason is island dwarfism, a phenomenon where animals living on islands don’t reach the same size as their mainland counterparts.

Yet while they are small, these little fellas are heavily built, which gives them the stout strength they are famed for.

5. The Great Plains Aren’t the Only Place With Bison.

European bison scraping the ground with its feet, making the dust blow up.

The Great Plains aren’t the only places where you can find bison. An ocean over, you can find another species, the European Bison. Although they might initially appear identical, a closer look will reveal some subtle differences between them.

European bison can grow bigger than plains bison, sometimes reaching nearly seven feet, which is a half foot higher than their American counterparts, whose average height is six and a half feet. Despite that, plains bison are heavier and weigh 2,100 pounds compared to the European bison, which weigh less than 2,000 pounds.

Both species also have slightly different horns. The plains bison’s horns tend to curve sideways and upwards, while European bison’s horns curve forward. The plains bison also tend to be hairier to deal with the extreme cold. 

A big difference is that European bison are wilder and harder to tame, and while some have been brought to captivity, it is difficult to keep them in a domesticated setting, especially compared to the American bison, which are more accustomed to it.

One less favorable similarity is that both animals have been hunted near extinction. For most of the 20th century, it was rare to find either European or plains bison put in the wild, but thanks to strong conservation efforts, both animals have been brought back from near extinction.

6. Bison and Mongolian Cattle Are Masters At Surviving the Grasslands. 

Like the great plains, the Eurasian steppe is a vast swathe of plains, valleys, and forests with plenty of grazing lands and harsh winters. Both the bison and Mongolian cattle have adapted to the conditions of such a habitat.

Compared to normal dairy cows, Mongolian cattle have a stockier build and a thicker coat to survive the cold winters of the steppes. Their fur is famously brindled or rust-colored, though black and brown are also common colors. 

They also have a slight hump along their back (though it’s far less prominent than a bison’s) and long, thin horns that curve forward to fend off predators. All of these features help make these cattle look more like bison.  

Mongolian cattle are quite small, though as they stand about 3.6 feet tall, but are heavily built and weigh between 600 and 1,300 pounds. But aside from being hardy, these cattle are some of the Mongolian people’s most important sources of food and clothing, so much so that cattle are considered one of Mongolia’s five most important animals.

7. Gaur Are The Bison of the East.

Gaur lying on the sandy ground with small plants and shrubs around it and a bird sitting on its shoulder bump.

Although the plains and European bison are the only two species of bison, the gaur is unofficially considered the Asian bison. Gaurs can be found all over Southeast Asia and India and are one of the largest mammals in Asia, rivaled only by rhinos, elephants, and tigers.

They stand over 6 feet at the shoulder and can weigh more than 2,000 pounds, meaning their size is comparable to bison. Almost all of that bulk is muscle, meaning that very few animals try to pick a fight with them, with their natural predators being tigers. 

They have short black fur and thick curving horns that resemble buffalo more than bison, though they have a large hump similar to bison. 

Despite their size, the biggest threat they face is habitat loss and overhunting, as many hunters go after them for their horns. Hunting for them took off in the 20th century, just around the time the bison nearly went extinct.

Thankfully some repopulation campaigns are seeing some success in bringing these animals back.

Animal NameAnimal HeightAnimal Length Animal Weight
Cattle5.9 feet (male) and 5 feet (female)8.5 feet1,800 pounds (male) and 900 pounds (females)
Water Buffalo6.2 feet (male) and 5 feet (female)8-9 feet1,500-2,650 pounds.
Gaur6 feet8.2-11.8 feet2,000 pounds
Mongolian Cattle3.6 feet600-1,300 pounds
Yak5.2 to 6.7 feet7.9 to 12 feet1,100–2,600 pounds
Tamaraw3-3-5 feet7.2 feet400-661 pounds
European Bison5.9-6.9 feet9.2 to 10.8 feet935 to 2,030 pounds
Plain Bison6.5 feet (male) and 4-5 feet (female)7-8 feet2,100 pounds (male) and 1,000 pounds (female)

Bison and Other Animals Play  Important Roles In The Wild

While bison are massive physically, what’s even bigger is their role in the environment.

Although everyone in the animal kingdom provides something for the ecosystem to thrive, bison are considered one of the most important animals in the grassland’s habitat. A few other animals play an equally important role in their habitats.

8. Like Bison, Wildebeest Play a Key Role in the Ecosystem.

A closeup of a wilderbeest with a field of long, brown grass behind it.

Wildebeest and bison play an essential role in their environment, so much so that they are both considered keystone species. While their roles differ slightly, both of them act as providers for the animals and plants around them. Wildebeests are keystone prey, acting as the main food source for many predators in the savannah. 

A group of adult bison and their calves walking toward the camera on the grass field with a hillside clad with shrubs behind them.

Bison, meanwhile, help rejuvenate the environment during their yearly migrations. Their hair provides building materials for birds, while their feet and wallowing behavior create holes and indentations in the ground for amphibians to live in, and their fur carries seeds that can help restore the grasslands.

Both of them also have some roles that overlap. As grass eaters, both bison and wildebeest herds graze vast swaths of their habitat and remove excess organic matter, reducing the risk of fires.

9. Corals and Bison are Both Ecosystem Engineers

Brown and red corals just under the water's surface with small fish swimming around.

Corals are probably the strangest choice here on the list, but also one of the most important. Both bison and coral reefs are known as ecosystem engineers, a type of keystone species whose presence and behavior shape the environment and make it more habitable for other animals. In some ways, an ecosystem cannot exist without our hardworking friends.

With the coral reefs, their help is obvious, and they provide a place for small fishes and other sea life to live and hide from predators. The presence of corals practically creates the ecosystem from scratch, providing sea life with everything they need to survive.

Bison walking towards the camera on a green field with its head turned.

Bison are not that different in how much they reshape the Great Plains. As bison march across the country, they leave behind shallow depressions called wallows. When the rain arrives, these wallows act as pools, allowing for smaller animals to drink and make their home in the wallows.

Aside from that, seeds cling onto bisons’ fur when they rest, letting our large friends carry them long distances. When these seeds fall off,  they can grow and replenish the area with new vegetation in a different location. Being able to transport seeds so far means the plant life is spread evenly, and the entire plains can bloom.

10, Elephants and Bison are Both Giant Travellers.

Two African elephants stqanding on a green field with the tree-line faintly in the background and a sundown on a pink sky.

While bison are the largest animals in North America, elephants are the largest land animals in the world. But aside from their size, both animals are also well-traveled. The bison is famous for the vast distances they travel across the Great Plains for migration, and elephants are no different.

While they don’t always deal with winter, elephants also migrate yearly to handle the changing seasons. As the dry season kicks in, vast herds of elephants will travel across the land in search of more hospitable climates where they can find food and water. Sometimes, they may even travel farther than bison! 

But as they travel, elephants also play a role in the environment. As they march, elephants clear up shrubs and fallen branches, leaving room for smaller animals to pass. Their tusks are also used to dig up dry riverbeds for water underground, which other animals rely on. 

And lastly, like bison, elephants help plant new vegetation along the savannah, though in this case, elephants do it through their dung. When elephants poop, they leave seeds whole, which can still grow into plants, while the dung acts like a natural fertilizer, ensuring they leave the area more fertile than when they arrived.

Closeup of bison.

There Are Other Giants Aside from Bison

Although bison are the kings of their continent, they are far from the only giant mammals roaming around. You can find plenty of large animals, some of which can even give bison a run for their money.

12. Moose are Often Compared to Bison.

Moose laying in th a field with trees behind it.

Although bison are the largest animals in North America, they face stiff competition from moose. The American Moose is second only to the bison in terms of size. Some of the largest moose (especially those in Alaska) can even outgrow some smaller bison. 

Both animals are part of the order Artiodactyla, which contains all even-toed ungulates like sheep, pigs, cattle, and moose. Although they are both over 6 feet tall, moose are lighter and have longer legs, making them more suited for running. Moose also tend to have far longer faces, making them closer to horses than cattle. 

The antlers of moose are much larger than the horns of a bison. They branch out from their heads in all directions like the roots of a tree, sometimes reaching lengths of up to five feet across.

Both animals can also be rather temperamental. While neither is naturally violent, moose and bison can be terrifying when angered. They have been known to attack and seriously injure humans who get too close to them and ignore some o their warning signs.

13. Caribou are Bison Up North

Caribou walking in snow with snowclad trees in the background.

Another mighty mammal in North America is the caribou. Found far north in Canada and Alaska, these caribous also live in vast herds, which can sometimes number in the hundreds of thousands! Today, an estimated 5 million caribou are spread out among 30 or so herds.

Like bison, these giants will migrate hundreds of miles south to warmer climates and greener pastures during winter. Seeing thousands of caribou moving all at once can make for an amazing sight.

Even individually, caribou can be intimidating. The average caribou stands about 5 feet tall and weighs between 250 and 700 pounds. They resemble moose with long, narrow faces and short tails but have wild coats of brown fur like bison.

Probably the caribous’ crowning glory is their antlers which shoot up their heads and can reach up to four feet for males and two feet for females. 

Animals that Have Historical or Cultural Significance Similar to Bison.

Sometimes, the similarities between bison and other animals might not be as obvious as others. Similarities can come from a shared history or impact on people or other species. We’ve already seen how bison can affect other animals, but what about how they affect people?

14. Elk and Bison are the Last Survivors of the Ice Age in North America

Bull elk standing with its mouth open in tall grass right in front of a pine forest.

If bison are the giants of the plains, elk are the kings of the forest. The two make an interesting pair, with surprising similarities and some notable differences. 

The biggest difference is their appearance. Elks are much smaller and more lightly built than bison, with long legs and a sleek shape suited for running through the woods. Bison, meanwhile, are massive and powerful, able to bulldoze anything in their way. 

Elks are also solitary and shy, preferring to flee rather than fight and living with only their immediate family for most of the year. Bison, meanwhile, live in massive herds and are not ones to run from a fight. 

What does bring them together is the attention they get from hunters. Both bison and elk are highly regarded prey and are thus often hunted for food or sport. This is not a new phenomenon either, as elks and bison are some of the last remnants of the ice age thousands of years ago. That means humans have hunted them since the stone age!

Cave painting of a bison
Animal NameAnimal HeightAnimal LengthAnimal Weight
Moose6 feet (male) and 5.5 feet (female)7-10 feet.1,000-1,600 pounds (male)600-800 pounds (female)
Elks5 feet (male) and 4.5 feet (female)5.8 feet700-1,100 pounds (male)500-600 pounds (female)
Wildebeest4.5 feet8 feet330 to 550 pounds
Caribou5.9 to 6.8 feet (males) 5.5 to 6.2 feet (females)5 feet250 to 700 pounds
African Elephant10 feet (male)6.2-9.1 (female)25 feet (counting the trunk and tail)13,000 (male) and 6,600 (female)

15. Llamas and Bison Helped Build the New World Cultures

Llama standing on a barren hillside with mountain tops behind it

In a continent without farm animals, horses, or even the use of wheels, the only thing Native Americans and Incan people could rely on to provide them with necessities was the wildlife around them, such as bison and llamas.

Llamas are much smaller than bison, being built to climb the steep Andes mountains. The average llama stands at over four feet and weighs 300-400 pounds but makes up for its size by being very sure-footed. 

American bison standing on a grass field with a tree-clad hill in the background.

While they aren’t physically big, their contributions to the Incan society were massive. Llamas were used to carry supplies and building materials over the mountains. Aside from that, llamas were a source of food and materials. Their wooly fur was necessary to make clothing that could help people stay warm in the mountains. 

Up north, bison were just as critical for the survival of the Native Americans. Without domesticated livestock, the bison herds were the only animals from which Native Americans could get furs, meat, and bones. 

For that reason, both of them were held in high regard by the two civilizations. Without them, the New World would have looked completely different. 

Author: Quade Ong

Hello there, my name is Quade. I have been a writer for three years but an animal lover for over two decades. I grew up in one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, which has given me the blessing of seeing all sorts of beautiful animals. Now I strive to learn not just about the animals I am from, but those all over the world!

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