Bubalus bubaliswater buffalo

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Geographic Range

Asian water buffalo, Bubalus bubalis, has been heavily domesticated and thus is now widespread. The suspected native domain of B. bubalis was from Central India to southern Nepal in the west to Vietnam and Malaysia in the east. It is believed that true wild populations still survive in parts of India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Thailand. Domesticated and or feral populations are very widespread. River buffalo (a domesticated variety) are found more in the west and reside in Indochina, the Mediterranean, and parts of South and Central America. Swamp buffalo (another variety under domestication) are more easterly in distribution and inhabit Indochina and Southeast Asia as well as Australia. (Gurung and Singh, 1996; Ligda, 1999a; Macdonald, 2001; Nowak, 1999; Shackleton and Harestad, 2003; Singh, et al., 2000)

Habitat

In the wild, water buffalo are found in tropical and subtropical forests as well as wet grasslands. They are considered terrestrial but are heavily dependent on water and spend a majority of time wallowing in rivers or mud holes. Thus, B. bubalis is found in wet habitats ranging from riverine forests and grasslands, to marshes and swamps. These habitats are a mixture of tall grasses, rivers and streams, and a scattering of trees and forests. Such an environment provides B. bubalis with adequate water for drinking and wallowing, abundant food, and dense cover.

In general, water buffalo are found in lower elevations, but in Nepal, swamp buffalo can commonly be found at elevations of 2,800 m. Domesticated animals are widespread, and therefore are found in a wide variety of habitats. The majority of the domesticated water buffalo are found in agricultural communities, but they can also be found in many cities. (Gurung and Singh, 1996; Ligda, 1999b; Macdonald, 2001; Nowak, 1999; Shackleton and Harestad, 2003)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • lakes and ponds
  • rivers and streams
  • temporary pools
  • Range elevation
    0 to 2800 m
    0.00 to 9186.35 ft

Physical Description

Bubalus bubalis is a large animal. Individuals stand 1.5 to 1.9 m in height at the shoulder, and have large feet with splayed hooves. The face is long and narrow, with rather small ears and large horns. The horns of this species have the widest spread found in any bovid. Unlike African buffalo, in which the bases of the horns almost meet at the forehead, the bases of the horns in Asian water buffalo are far apart. Both sexes bear horns, although those of the female are smaller than those of the male. Horns of both sexes are heavy set at the base, ribbed, and are triangular in cross-section.

Bubalus bubalis has a body length of 240 to 300 cm and a tail length of 60 to 100 cm. Wild male water buffalo weigh up to 1,200 kg, and females can weigh up to 800 kg. Domesticated water buffalo range from 250 to 550 kg.

Water buffalo have sparse hair that is long and ashy gray to black. Their relatively long tail is bushy at the tip. Their legs are often dirty white up to the knees. Adult buffalo are almost hairless and their skin color varies with weather conditions, though it is difficult to ascertain the skin color, as these animals are usually covered with mud. When not mud covered and dry, the skin is dark grey; however, when moist (and not mud covered), the skin is dark brown to black. Swamp buffalo (a variety of B. bubalis under domestication) are more ashy gray in color, has a drooping neck, and horns that are swept back and out, whereas river buffalo (the other domesticated variety) are more black and have tightly curled horns.

A closely related species found in the Philippines is Bubalus mindorensis, or tamaraw. It is smaller than B. bubalis, weighing 300 kg and standing 100 cm at the shoulder. Tamaraws have more hair than Asian water buffalo, are dark brown to black, and have shorter horns. (Lekagul and McNeely, 1988; Ligda, 1999a; Macdonald, 2001; Nowak, 1999; Phillips, 1984; Prater, 1971; Shackleton and Harestad, 2003; Singh, et al., 2000)

  • Range mass
    250 to 1200 kg
    550.66 to 2643.17 lb
  • Range length
    240 to 300 cm
    94.49 to 118.11 in

Reproduction

Mating is typically polygynous. Maternal groups exist in a large, loosely structured herds year round. During the wet season, adult males (from bachelor groups or solitary) enter the female groups, and mate with, but do not control, the receptive females who are in estrus for 11 to 72 hours. After mating, males are driven off. Male bovids in general display dominance by posture and movement, and few conflicts escalate to levels of serious injury. Bulls determine estrus by sniffing a cow’s urine and genitals. (Lekagul and McNeely, 1988; Ligda, 1999c; Nowak, 1999; Shackleton and Harestad, 2003)

Timing of reproduction in this species is somewhat variable. In some areas, breeding is seasonally dependent, whereas in other areas it is seasonally independent. Where seasonally dependent, breeding often occurs after the rainy season and calves are born the following year near the beginning of the rainy season. Where seasonally independent, calves may be born year round.

The estrus cycle is 21 days. Of female bovids, water buffalo have the longest gestation period: 300 to 340 days. Females usually have one calf, but they may have twins. A female typically produces an average of one calf every two years. Calves are born weighing 35 to 40 kg, and are red to yellow brown. Nursing lasts 6 to 9 months.

Females reach sexual maturity at approximately 1.5 years of age and remain in a maternal group within a larger herd. Males reach sexual maturity at the age of 3 years, at which point they leave the female group and often join bachelor groups. (Lekagul and McNeely, 1988; Ligda, 1999c; Nowak, 1999; Shackleton and Harestad, 2003)

  • Breeding interval
    Females are capable of producing one calf every two years.
  • Breeding season
    Most breeding in seasonal populatons occurs in October and November. However, some populations can breed year round.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 2
  • Average number of offspring
    1
  • Average number of offspring
    1.375
    AnAge
  • Range gestation period
    300 to 340 days
  • Range weaning age
    6 to 9 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1.5 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    502 days
    AnAge
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    3 years

Males only exhibit mating effort, and after impregnating the females show no further parental investment. Females exhibit all parental care of the young. Females nurse their calves from 6 to 9 months. Before independence, females also protect their calves and can be aggressive. At age 3 males leave maternal group. Females remain in their maternal group, and inherit the loose territory of the larger female herd which is composed of multiple maternal groups. (Gurung and Singh, 1996; Macdonald, 2001; Nowak, 1999; Shackleton and Harestad, 2003)

  • Parental Investment
  • no parental involvement
  • precocial
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • protecting
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents
  • inherits maternal/paternal territory

Lifespan/Longevity

Water buffalo are known to have a life of up to 25 years in the wild, and a longevity of up to 29 years in captivity. (Nowak, 1999)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    25 (high) years
  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    29 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: captivity
    34.9 years
    AnAge

Behavior

Bubalus bubalis is social. Wild water buffalo commonly form cohesive herds varying from 10 to 20 individuals, although herds of up to 100 individuals have been observed. In Australia, feral water buffalo form herds of up to 30 individuals consisting of adult females, their offspring, and sub-adult females. These herds occupy a home range that provides areas for feeding, drinking, wallowing, and resting. A dominance hierarchy exists within these groups with the leader being an old cow.

At the age of three, males leave female herds, often forming bachelor herds. Bachelor herds may have up to 10 members. These herds typically have a slightly larger ranges than do female groups. Older males are often solitary, but have been observed in female herds year round.

Water buffalo are both diurnal and nocturnal. They are more sensitive to heat than most bovids because they have fewer sweat glands. Thus, water buffalo are known for wallowing in mud. Wallowing in mud helps to cool the animal because water in mud evaporates more slowly than just water alone, thus extending the period of cooling. Wallowing also serves to cake the animal with mud, which protects it from biting insects.

Water buffalo often graze in the morning and evening. During hotter parts of the day, they rest in patches of dense cover, wallow in mud holes, or completely submerge themselves in water with only their nostrils and eyes exposed. When deprived of wallowing grounds, water buffalo often seek shade to alleviate the stress of heat. (Gurung and Singh, 1996; Macdonald, 2001; Nowak, 1999; Phillips, 1984; Prater, 1971; Shackleton and Harestad, 2003)

Home Range

Female feral water buffalo in Australia form clans, consisting of mothers and daughters, that are made up of roughly 30 individuals. Each of these clans has a home range varying from 170 to 1,000 ha. These clans can form a herd of 30 to 500 individuals which meet nightly at a communal resting area. Males form bachelor groups of up to 10 individuals with slightly larger ranges. Male ranges overlap those of female groups. (Nowak, 1999)

Communication and Perception

In general, bovids communicate through posture and movement. Herds often grunt and snort to each other as they travel, while bellowing is rare. Bulls often snort and stamp the ground before charging. Charging may occur as a means of defense, or as an aggressive display of dominance, as seen in mate competition. Bubalus bubalis has a well developed sense of smell, and checmical cues seem to be important, at least in mating. These animals also have acute hearing. Water buffalo are not highly dependent on sight. Although physical aggression is rare, some tactile communication occurs between mates, as well as between mothers and their young. (Gurung and Singh, 1996; Macdonald, 2001; Phillips, 1984; Prater, 1971; Shackleton and Harestad, 2003)

Food Habits

Bubalus bubalis is a ruminant and is predominately a grazer on grasses. It also eats herbs, aquatic plants, leaves, agricultural crops, and various other vegetation that grows in or along rivers and streams. (Gurung and Singh, 1996; Lekagul and McNeely, 1988; Macdonald, 2001; Phillips, 1984; Shackleton and Harestad, 2003)

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • wood, bark, or stems
  • macroalgae

Predation

In general, the horns of bovids are effective anti-predator deterrents. Humans have been a significant threat to water buffalo, both through hunting and through habitat encroachment and fragmentation. Tigers are the only other predator on water buffalo, though water buffalo are challenging prey even to so large a cat. When confronted by a tiger, water buffalo often stand together as a herd and charge together in a line. They are usually successful at driving tigers off, and water buffalo have been known to kill tigers with their horns. Tigers often have their success stalking single animals and focusing on juveniles. (Lekagul and McNeely, 1988; Prater, 1971; Lekagul and McNeely, 1988; Macdonald, 2001; Prater, 1971; Shackleton and Harestad, 2003)

Ecosystem Roles

Bubalus bubalis is preyed upon by tigers, thus providing a food source for top predators. Remains of dead water buffalo are also fed upon by various scavengers. Large herds have been shown to impact the nesting sites of some birds such as magpie geese. Water buffalo have proven destructive to caimans and their nesting sites in Brazil, adversely affecting the caimans' productivity and long-term density. Large herds of water buffalo also may damage certain flora, either directly by trampling or grazing, or indirectly by soil compaction. Water buffalo have been blamed for exacerbating the spread of exotic weeds in northern Australia. Finally, their excrement provides fertilizer for various flora. (Campos, 1993; Corbett, et al., 1996; Fensham and Cowie, 1998; Lekagul and McNeely, 1988; Phillips, 1984; Prater, 1971)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

The domestication of water buffalo 5,000 years ago has made them economically important animals. They provide more than 5% of the world’s milk supply. Their milk is exceedingly rich, having less water and more fat, lactose, and protein than cow milk. It is used to make butter, butter oil (ghee), high quality cheeses, and various other products. Their meat is very tender and palatable and is difficult to differentiate from beef. Their hides also are of significant importance in that they make superb leather products. They are a noteworthy beast of burden throughout much of their range. Water buffalo are equivalent to tractors in Southeast Asia, providing 20% to 30% of farm power; they also serve as means of transportation, and their dung is collected and used as fertilizer. Lastly, water buffalo are also important for some hunting businesses. (Ligda, 1999d; Nowak, 1999; Shackleton and Harestad, 2003; Singh, et al., 2000)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • body parts are source of valuable material
  • produces fertilizer

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Water buffalo are determined animals, and they are very large. They may break into fields and consume produce. They are known to damage rice paddys and other growing crops. Wild bulls have been known to invade domesticated herds, killing the less capable domesticated bull, and breeding with receptive females. Therefore, loss is incurred through the death of the tame bull. Furthermore, the resulting offspring are less docile and possibly too large to fit a farmer's equipment. Occasionally, wild bulls not only invade tame herds, but also take over and drive off owners, keeping the herd for themselves. Lastly, wild or feral water buffalo are dangerous animals. Females with young can be very defensive and are known to charge and to injure humans. Bulls that are wounded are extremely dangerous and have been known to kill humans that are stalking them. (Lekagul and McNeely, 1988; Phillips, 1984)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans
  • crop pest

Conservation Status

Although domesticated water buffalo are thriving and are distributed well beyond their native range, true wild water buffalo are in jeopardy. It may be that no true wild water buffalo exist, but have been lost to interbreeding with domesticated or feral buffalo. It is difficult to distinguish between wild water buffalo, feral, domesticated, and their hybrids, thus making their actual status uncertain. They are currently listed as endangered under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and it is estimated that there are less than 1,000 wild water buffalo remaining. These suspected wild individuals reside in small parts of India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Thailand. The possibility of extinction of wild populations is quite real.

The major threats to the species include continued habitat destruction and fragmentation as agricultural land use expands; hunting; and interbreeding with domestic and feral buffalo. Other serious threats include competition with domestic livestock, and diseases carried by domestic livestock.

Wild water buffalo are legally protected in Bhutan, Nepal, India, and Thailand on nature reserves, and are listed in CITES under Appendix III (Nepal). Conservation programs are focusing on preserving their habitat, which is becoming increasingly difficult as human populations expand. (Choudhury, 1994; Hedges, 1996; Heinen, 1993; Macdonald, 2001; Shackleton and Harestad, 2003)

Other Comments

Due to domestication, some authorities use Bubalus arnee or Bubalus arni to refer to true wild water buffalo, and Bubalus bubalis to refer to domesticated buffalo. Furthermore, some authorities divide domesticated buffalo into two subspecies: swamp buffalo, Bubalus bubalis carabanesis, and the river buffalo, Bubalus bubalis bubalis. This report follows authorities that use Bubalus bubalis to refer to Asian water buffalo, whether wild or domesticated. (Gurung and Singh, 1996; Lekagul and McNeely, 1988; Macdonald, 2001; Nowak, 1999; Shackleton and Harestad, 2003)

Contributors

Nancy Shefferly (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Jason Roth (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Phil Myers (editor, instructor), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

Australian

Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map

Neotropical

living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map

Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

folivore

an animal that mainly eats leaves.

food

A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

introduced

referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

macroalgae

seaweed. Algae that are large and photosynthetic.

marsh

marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nocturnal

active during the night

oriental

found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map

polygynous

having more than one female as a mate at one time

riparian

Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sedentary

remains in the same area

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

sexual ornamentation

one of the sexes (usually males) has special physical structures used in courting the other sex or fighting the same sex. For example: antlers, elongated tails, special spurs.

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

swamp

a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

urban

living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year

young precocial

young are relatively well-developed when born

References

Campos, Z. 1993. Effect of habitat on survival of eggs and sex ratio of hatchlings of Caiman crocodilus yacare in the Pantanal, Brazil. Journal of Herpetology, 27: 127-132.

Choudhury, A. 1994. The decline of the wild water buffalo in north-east India. Oryx, 28: 70-73.

Corbett, L., A. Hertog, W. Muller. 1996. An experimental study of the impact of feral swamp buffalo Bubalus bubalis on the breeding habitat and nesting success of magpie geese Anseranas semipalmata in Kakadu National Park. Biological Conservation, 76: 277-287.

Fensham, R., I. Cowie. 1998. Alien plant invasions on the Tiwi Islands. Extent, implications and priorities for control. Biological Conservation, 83: 55-68.

Gurung, K., R. Singh. 1996. Field Guide to the Mammals of the Indian Subcontinent. London: Academic Press Limited.

Hedges, S. 1996. "Species Information" (On-line). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Accessed February 07, 2004 at http://www.redlist.org/search/details.php?species=3129.

Heinen, J. 1993. Population viability and management recommendations for wild water buffalo Bubalus bubalis in Kosi Tappu Wildlife Reserve, Nepal. Biological Conservation, 65: 29-34.

Lekagul, B., J. McNeely. 1988. Mammals of Thailand. Bangkok, Thailand: Darnsutha Press.

Ligda, D. 1999. "Introduction, Breeds, Genetics" (On-line). Water Buffalo. Accessed January 31, 2004 at http://ww2.netnitco.net/users/djligda/waterbuf.htm.

Ligda, D. 1999. "Milk" (On-line). Water buffalo. Accessed January 31, 2004 at http://ww2.netnitco.net/users/djligda/waterbuf.htm.

Ligda, D. 1999. "Reproduction" (On-line). Water Buffalo. Accessed January 31, 2004 at http://ww2.netnitco.net/users/djligda/waterbuf.htm.

Ligda, D. 1999. "Work" (On-line). Water Buffalo. Accessed January 31, 2004 at http://ww2.netnitco.net/users/djligda/waterbuf.htm.

Macdonald, D. 2001. Wild Cattle and Spiral-Horned Antelope. Pp. 530-539 in G Bateman, T Allan, M Salad, eds. The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nowak, R. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World, Sixth Edition. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Phillips, W. 1984. Manual of the Mammals of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka: Wildlife and Nature Protection Society of Sri Lanka.

Prater, S. 1971. The Book of Indian Animals. Bombay, India: Bombay Natural History Society.

Shackleton, D., A. Harestad. 2003. Bovids I - Kudus, buffaloes, and bison. Pp. 11-25 in M Hutchins, D Kleiman, V Geist, M McDade, eds. Grzimek's Animal Life Encylopedia, Vol. 16, 2nd Edition. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group.

Singh, J., A. Nanda, G. Adams. 2000. The reproductive pattern and efficiency of female buffaloes. Animal Reproduction Science, 60-61: 593-604.