by John Mays
In fact—get ready—there is no such thing as an American buffalo, and there never has been. The animal pictured above, famed for being reduced by hunting and slaughter from its prime population of 60 million during the early 19th century to an incredible low of 541 animals in 1889, is one of two variations in the species of American bison, Bison bison. The one pictured is the plains bison, Bison bison bison. The other is the wood bison, Bison bison athabascae. (There is also a European bison found in—yes—Europe.) The only actual buffalos in the world are the various species of African buffalo, found in Africa, and the two species of water buffalo, Bubalus arnee (wild) and B. bubalis (domestic) found all over Asia.
How in the world did we start calling the American animal a buffalo—a term used ubiquitously? Because of the French, my friend. Apparently, in the early 17th century, when some French trappers saw a drawing of a bison they assumed it was an animal like the buffalo they knew of (somehow) found on other continents. The name stuck. In 1774, the correct term bison became official, but the old term is still in constant use. Even in songs you learned as a child.
Personally, I intend henceforth to say bison for the American critters. You may want to do the same in your science class. (And by the way, although the buffalo burger you see on a menu is actually a bison burger, buffalo mozzarella is named correctly—it is made with the milk of the water buffalo, Bubalus bubalis.) Now you know.