Smallmouth Buffalo vs. Black Buffalo: How to tell the difference.

Depending on your geographic location in the United States, buffalo are often common targets when bowfishing.  Which species of buffalo you cross paths with is often determined by the water body you are on, for example; lakes vs. rivers, fast-moving waters vs. slower pools, etc.  The distinction between a bigmouth buffalo and a smallmouth buffalo is usually obvious as their mouth structures are very different. However, often when a black buffalo is encountered the identification is not nearly as straightforward.  I’ll share information gleaned from research and my own experiences with these species to give you a better sense for which one you may be looking at if you successfully land one.

The best place to start is the overall structure of each fish’s body.  For the black buffalo the body will be cylindrical when looking at the fish head on.  A smallmouth buffalo has a deeper body with a keel shape along its back.  Here’s a basic illustration:

The length of the fish can help with identification as well.  There is a ratio that exists that describes how a black buffalo is typically longer in relation to its body depth than a smallmouth buffalo.  The calculation is determined by measuring the fish’s “Standard” length.  This is the tip of the nose to the last vertebrae/start of caudal fin (tail fin).  This length is then divided by the largest depth measurement on the fish from the top of the back straight down to the fishes belly.

Another tell-tale sign of a black buffalo is the lips.  They are usually extremely fleshy, often with folds in the bottom lip.  Smallmouth buffalo can have lips that vary in “fleshiness” and this characteristic could cause false identification and should only be used in conjunction with other qualifying characteristics. Here’s a representative picture of the fleshy lips of a black buffalo:

Large, fleshy lips are often a characteristic of a Black Buffalo, but should only be used in conjunction with other characteristics for a positive identification.

The mouth on the black buffalo is also located just beneath the front end of the snout, and it is slightly oblique (upturned); the mouth on the smallmouth buffalo is located in a more posterior (further back) position, and the mouth is nearly horizontal.

Finally, attention should be paid to the fish’s eyes.  Smallmouth buffalo have large, jet black eyes that really stand out as part of the fish’s head.  The black buffalo has smaller, more natural looking eyes.  While some researchers have tried to quantify the difference, this characteristic is really more subjective.

With all of these distinguishing characteristics, hopefully identification of each species becomes easier. In reality though there could be significant hybridization between the species where their ranges overlap.  With that in mind, it’s best to try to identify the fish by more than one characteristic. However, whenever an obvious characteristic, like a pronounced keel along the back is observed, the fish is most likely a smallmouth buffalo, or a hybrid.

Here’s a quick reference table to recap:

Please consider these guidelines for fish identification, as the only way to be certain of a given species is to conduct genetic testing.

For further information please consider the following sources of information:

USGS Black Buffalo

USGS Smallmouth Buffalo