Bison VS Wildebeest (What Are Their Similarities and Differences?)

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Published on December 23, 2022
Last Updated on October 11, 2023

Bison is one of North America’s largest wild animals. These mighty mammals can easily tower over people and other wildlife, so it is no surprise that they symbolize strength and power. 

While their size and importance are undisputed in their continent, they face stiff competition from the rest of the world. In Africa, tons of giant mammals can compete with bison. Wildebeests (better known as the animals that trampled Mufasa) are one animal that can give bison a run for their money.

Although not as big, they share many similarities and play an essential role in the environment. Join us in Floofmania as we analyze these two animals, what sets them apart, what they have in common, and everything in between.

What’s The Difference Between A Bison And A Wildebeest?

It is important to remember that bison and wildebeest have some major differences. To compare them accurately, you should be aware of these differences. 

American bison standing among plants and tall grasses.

Are Bison And Wildebeest Related?

Both bison and wildebeest are mammals and part of the Bovidae biological family, but that is where their similarities end. While that might seem like they are closely related, the Bovidae consists of over one hundred species and ten subfamilies.

Wildebeest are part of the antelope family, a group of Old World hoofed mammals. These include steenbooks, gazelles, and, well, antelopes. Members of this family are known to have hollow horns, lean bodies, and overdeveloped hindquarters, allowing them to move in a dodging run.

Bison are part of the Bovinae family, otherwise known as bovines. This family of animals includes yaks, buffalo, and domestic cattle. These animals tend to be bulky, with horns growing from the sides of their head.

So at best, you can think of wildebeest and bison as distant cousins.

Where Are Bison and Wildebeest Found

Herd of wilderbeest grazing on the savannah.

Although both species are grassland dwellers, their habitats are found in opposite parts of the world. The bison make their homes in the open Mid-West of the United States, in an area known as the Great Plains. These plains are a vast flatland with almost nothing except grass, rivers, and rolling hills. 

Wildebeest, meanwhile, make their homes in the Serengeti, or “endless plains,” a massive flatland that spans multiple countries in southeast Africa. This plain is an extensive grassland with the occasional tree and hill.

What makes them different is the climate. The Great Plains has a mild climate that experiences all four seasons, while the Serengeti is much more tropical, experiencing only two seasons, wet and dry.  

Despite their differences, both grasslands are perfect for migration, which both bison and wildebeest regularly do. When the snow begins to fall, bison will typically travel along the Great Plains in search of milder weather where they can have easier access to food. These migrations can stretch over hundreds of miles. 

Wildebeests are no different; while they don’t experience winter, the dry season can be a problem. Without enough rainfall, food is harder to come by, so wildebeest migrate, following the rain and a readily available food source.

These migrations also take wildebeest hundreds of miles across the Serengeti, sometimes even farther than bison!

Fact: The yearly wildebeest migration is one of the largest migrations on Earth, with as many as 1.5 million animals participating. It is a sight to behold and is often called one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. 
American bison walking through snow.

Which Is Bigger: Bison Or Wildebeest?

One thing bison and wildebeest have in common is that they are both large land animals. The plains bison is considered the largest land animal in North America. The average bison stands about 6.5 feet tall at the shoulder, is 9-11 long, and weighs over 2,000 pounds. That means one bison weighs fifteen times more than the average American!

While not the largest animal in Africa, wildebeest are far from small. They are not quite as large as bison, though, with the average wildebeest reaching about 4.5 feet in height. That is much smaller than a bison, though they make up for it in length, with wildebeest reaching 8 feet long and weighing about 330-550 pounds. 

Fact: The plains bison is one of the last remnants of the Ice Age animals, having lived in the New World for over 12,000 years! This might explain why they are so big, as many species were much bigger back then.

How Are Bison’s and Wildebeests’ Horns Different?

Another similarity between these animals is that they sport powerful horns on their heads. Bison and wildebeest use these horns to defend themselves and challenge rivals during mating season. While their functions might be similar, their appearance is quite different.

Wildebeest horns grow from the sides of their heads and initially point outward but then curve inward towards the top, similar to a horseshoe. The horns do not sport ridges, unlike some antelopes. 

Both males and females have horns, though their lengths vary based on gender. Bull wildebeest can have horns as long as 2.7 feet, while female horns only reach 1.3 feet.

A closeup of an American bison and its horns.

Bison, meanwhile, have shorter, curved horns that usually come in black. Like Wildebeest, both males and females have horns, but these tend to reach about two feet, making them shorter than those that wildebeest bulls have.

Hunters prize both horns as while neither has ivory, bison and wildebeest horns are used as hunting trophies or decorations in houses.

Fact: The horns of both wildebeests and bison are hollow inside and are made of keratin, the same material our nails are made of. Being hollow means that these horns could be used for tools for drinking, storing gunpowder, or even musical instruments!

Closeup of a wilderbeest and its horns.

Can You Tell Bison And Wildebeest Apart From Their Tails?

The tail usually makes up a large part of an animal’s length; these two are no different. Bison trails range from 1 to 3 feet long, with short fur except for a tuft of black hair at the tip.

The movement of a bison’s tail can be used to determine the animal’s mood. If their tail is just hanging down or placidly swishing back and forth, that usually means the bison is relaxed and not aggressive.

If the tail begins standing straight up, that usually means the bison is becoming agitated, and you might want to back away! Their movements can change at any moment, so keep a close eye on their tails when around bison. 

Wildebeest tails also make up a large part of their body, measuring an average of 1-2 feet in length. While close to the size of bison tails, their appearance is entirely different. Wildebeest tails look more like horse tails than cows’, with long strands of black hair running along their length.

Do Bison And Wildebeest Move Differently?

Being grassland dwellers, both bison and wildebeest have plenty of room to stretch their legs and move around. Although both are land animals, there are some slight differences in how they get around. While both walk and run, their builds allow them to move differently, affecting how they walk.

Bison are rather bulky and heavily built; though their legs are short, they are powerful. In most cases, bison move in a slow walk, but don’t let their large appearance fool you; they are surprisingly graceful and can run, pivot, and even jump. 

Herd of wilderbeest on grass field with thousands of wilderbeest in the background.

Wildebeest are much more agile, lightly built, and closer to horses and antelopes. While they can walk, wildebeest move at a trot, especially when migrating. This is thanks to their long, spindly legs, similar to antelopes and deer. Along with their large hindquarters, these give wildebeest a bounding motion when they run or gallop. 

Aside from being fast, they are agile and can turn and weave back and forth to escape predators.

Small group of American bison on a grass field.

Who’s Faster: The Bison Or The Wildebeest?

Of course, strength and size aren’t everything, and speed plays a vital role in an animal’s success. 

Bison are often thought of as slow and clumsy, though while they might like to take things slow, they can move surprisingly fast. 

When they are running, bison can reach speeds of up to 35-45 miles an hour. At that speed, bison can keep up with trained racehorses.

However, while that speed belies their size, it is nothing compared to a wildebeest. Members of the antelope family are made for speed, thanks to their leaner builds and long legs.

When they want to, wildebeest can reach speeds of over 50 miles an hour, allowing them to outrun predators like lions, making them among the fastest animals on Earth!

How Can You Tell The Difference Between Bison And Wildebeest Calves?

We have talked about wildebeest and bison as fully grown adults, but what about them as calves and whether there are noticeable differences there?

When bison calves are born, they lack their parents’ dark brown fur color; instead, they sport a light brown-reddish fur color. This has earned them the nickname “red dogs” because of their unique appearance.

Aside from the color, the other difference is the fur length, as the bison calves’ fur is short and neat looking in contrast to the shaggy and uneven appearance of bison adults.

Being closer to antelopes, wildebeest offspring also bear a resemblance to them. When they are born, wildebeest calves have a scrawny appearance, long legs, and small bodies. They weigh about 40-50 pounds at birth and can begin walking minutes after being born. As many as half a million wildebeest calves can be born in a year!

Fact: Almost all wildebeest are born around the same time of the year, around February or March, due to the mating period taking place about nine months before.

An american bison with its calf.

Do Bison And Wildebeest Ever Meet In The Wild?

The only place you’ll ever see a wildebeest and bison together is in zoos. While they live in a similar habitat of open grasslands, these grasslands are nowhere near each other. The plains bison are found exclusively in North America, specifically in the Great Plains, with small populations in Canada and Mexico.

Another species of bison, called the European bison, is found in parts of Central Europe, like Germany, Poland, and the Baltics.

Both populations are still worlds apart from wildebeest, who make their homes in the Serengeti, which is found in southwestern Africa. This vast savannah encompasses places like Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia.

Wilderbeest with its cow drinking milk with another wilderbeest laying nearby and zebras in the background.

Do Bison And Wildebeest Get Along?

Since they are continents apart, there is no definitive way to see whether or not these two animals will get along. There is some evidence for both sides of the argument. 

Bison are known as aggressive animals, attacking anyone who gets too close or who they might consider a threat, that includes other animals. Bison have severely injured several people who got too close to them, and Wildebeest might seem like a threat to them, seeing how big and strong they are.

While not naturally aggressive, wildebeest are territorial animals and will defend their homes from intruders. They certainly won’t like seeing another large mammal stomping around their homes, even if they are just passing by.

On the other hand, both of these animals are plant eaters, so they won’t attack each other for food, and they both have experiences sharing their habitats with large mammals. There might be a chance that they will just ignore each other, though calling them friends is a stretch.

Can Bison And Wildebeest Interbreed?

The chances of a bison and wildebeest successfully breeding are incredibly remote. For one, they are barely related to each other. While they are both mammals, they are from different subfamilies, with bison being a Bovidae and wildebeest being an Antilope.

Even if you could get these two animals together, they would likely not breed naturally. Since both animals live on different continents, they have almost no experience with each other and won’t see the other as a possible mate. That leaves artificial insemination as the only viable method. 

The chances of successful interbreeding, even in a laboratory, is a long shot. Their incredibly distant relationship means their genes are incompatible, so eggs will not fertilize. 

What Role Do Bison and Wildebeests Play in Their Environment?

It wouldn’t be a comparison if we did not also analyze the impact these two have on their respective ecosystems. Both animals are crucial for the survival of their grasslands, so much so that they are considered keystone species. That means they act like the glue that holds the ecosystem together, with their migrations playing a big part. 

Bison as A Keystone Species

In their search for new grasslands, bison regularly stop and eat plants and grass on the ground. When bison do that, they don’t just fill their bellies; they remove organic materials from the ground, reducing the risk of forest fires by preventing too much plant matter from piling up.

When on the march, bison are known to compress and trample the earth they pass, creating shallow depressions called wallows. When it rains, these wallows are filled up and become shallow pools that serve as critical water sources in the vast plains. Here, small amphibians and reptiles can make their home while other animals can stop and drink.

Aside from that, the hairs of a bison can help the local environment. Their hairs can act as building materials for birds to make their nests and allow seeds to climb on, that eventually fall and get planted in the earth, planting the soil as they go. 

Wildebeest as A Keystone Species 

Herd of wilderbeest on a grassfield in a beautiful landscape with the sun setting behind a mountain and a hot air balloon hovering above.

Like bison, when wildebeest migrate, they also impact the environment around them. As they clear up grasslands, they rescue the risk of forest fires by clearing up excess plant life. Meanwhile, after eating, their waste acts as a fertilizer for the ground and makes it easier for new grass to grow.

Aside from being important in shaping the ecosystem, they are a crucial keystone prey, serving as the primary food source for many of the Serengeti’s predators, like lions and cheetahs. With over a million wildebeest, they allow large numbers of predators to survive, and if they were to disappear, it could be disastrous for the entire ecosystem.

Who Would Win In A Fight Between A Bison And A Wildebeest?

Since these two animals don’t live together or have ever interacted, it is impossible to say who would win a fight. Given our information, it is possible to make some theories on it. 

Although both animals are quite large, they are built differently, with the bison having bulkier proportions. Since wildebeest are lightly built, bison have a huge advantage in size and strength, two important factors as it allows them to shrug off hits and fight back. 

Being several times heavier, a bison will have a much easier time swatting aside a wildebeest, definitely much easier than the other way around. 

However, while bison have a clear advantage in strength and size, the wildebeest outclass them in speed. While bison are fast for their size, their African cousins are on a whole different level. A wildebeest can easily outrun a bison and leave it in the dust.

Aside from being fast, wildebeest are also agile, able to turn, jump, and weave while on the run. Even if bison manage to keep up, matching that agility can be a problem, even for them.

In terms of their temperament, wildebeest and bison can be aggressive if they feel threatened and have been known to fight back against intruders who get too close to them. However, the advantage has to go to the bison, who are more willing to fight and, coupled with their size, gives them more of an edge in a fight against a wildebeest.

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!


  • 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.

    View all posts

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