Denver7 | SportsCollege Sports


CU Boulder researcher explains why Ralphie the buffalo is actually a bison

An important animal mascot-related question is answered ahead of the 2023 Rocky Mountain Showdown.
ralphie, handlers
Posted at 4:44 PM, Sep 15, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-15 18:44:42-04

BOULDER, Colo. — The spectacle of the Rocky Mountain Showdown returns Saturday, and with it returns the "Ralphie run" where the University of Colorado's mascot hits the field with 4 minutes left in halftime and 5 minutes on the game clock.

But as CU fans revel in the tradition, are they cheering on a buffalo? Or a bison?

CU Boulder itself wanted to set the record straight ahead of one of the university's biggest games in recent history.

Brooke Neely, a research associate with CU Boulder's Center of the American West, broke down the distinction between bison and buffalo in a video Tuesday, and the Mountain West's long history with buffaloes that may have fueled Ralphie being referred to as a buffalo.

CU's team may be called the "Buffs," but the more scientifically-accurate term for Ralphie is a North American Bison, Neely said.

The names are often used interchangeably, but buffalo and bison are two different animals. Old world “true” buffalo (Cape Buffalo and Water Buffalo) are native to Africa and Asia. Bison are found in North America and Europe, according to the Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.

Is Ralphie actually a bison? CU researcher explains the science

So how did CU – and Ralphie – become the Buffaloes?

It's not just the mascot. People refer to bison as buffaloes and vice versa in the wild frequently. The Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute cite a theory from the Huffington Post that early European explorers may have confused the two because of the way bison hides resemble buff-colored coats.

"Americans have long been fascinated by bison. And it's because they're such imposing, striking, kind of mesmerizing creatures," Neely said.

You can tell the difference between a bison and buffalo because bison have large humps at their shoulders and bigger heads than buffalo, the Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute said. They also have beards, as well as thick coats which they shed in the spring and early summer.

However in terms of CU Boulder, there was a contest in the university's first student newspaper to determine the school mascot in 1934. The result? The Buffaloes.

"Of all the animals that they were exploring, the bison really was most captivating and sort of reflective of the spirit of CU," Neeley said. I think in many ways it speaks to the enduring fascination we have with bison and the way that we sort of identify with bison."

csu cu 2002.jpg

College Sports

Rocky Mountain Showdown history: Unranked CSU has beaten a ranked CU team before

Landon Haaf
12:07 PM, Sep 15, 2023

For the final football game of the 1934 season, a group of students paid $25 to rent a buffalo calf to stand on the sidelines, according to CU Boulder's account of school history.

Live buffaloes then started making appearances at university games on and off throughout the early years of CU's history. They were usually in a pen on the field or sometimes driven around in a trailer.

The animal we now know as Ralphie first appeared on the sidelines of a football game on October 1, 1966. Shortly after, head football coach Eddie Crowder was approached with the idea of the buffalo leading the team out onto the field before the game. Ralphie's run first took place on September 16, 1967. Saturday's Rocky Mountain Showdown will mark the 56th anniversary of the school's tradition to the day.

The first full-time live mascot at CU was donated that same year in 1966. It was originally named Ralph "because that's the sound it made while running," the university said. But one student pointed out the female anatomy of the animal. So the name was changed to Ralphie.

So over time, it's become "generally accepted to call the Ralphie animal a bison or a buffalo," Neeley said.

Not making the trek to Boulder this year is Cam the Ram, CSU's mascot who is unequivocally a ram.

While Cam is a male, there is some reasoning behind Ralphie being a female. Female bison are smaller and less aggressive than males, according to About Boulder.

Cam the Ram's origins are simpler. His name is derived from CSU's old name Colorado Agricultural and Mechanical College.

Students officially voted to call themselves “Rams” in 1945, according to CSU. Then the first live ram mascot, "Buck," came to a basketball game against Denver University on Jan. 11, 1946.

Next year, the competition for the Centennial Cup will be played in Fort Collins, Colorado, and you can catch Cam on the sidelines.

The Rams play the Buffaloes at Folsom Field in Boulder at 8 p.m. Saturday, airing on ESPN.

Colorado Colorado St Football

College Sports

When allies become rivals: CU, CSU leaders dish on Rocky Mountain Showdown

Katie Parkins
2:19 PM, Sep 12, 2023