A study of Ice Age cave paintings combined with testing of ancient DNA has revealed the existence of an intriguing hybrid bison that originated more than 120,000 years ago.
A result of prehistoric relations between aurochs (the now extinct ancestor of modern cattle) and steppe bison, the newly uncovered bison flourished unusually well for a hybrid animal.
The study’s senior researcher Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, says that the lack of success many hybrid animals face is largely due to males being sterile. However, he told Live Science:
The Aurochs (Bos primigenius) and bison (Bison priscus) are “genetically quite different. [But they] produced something that was successful enough to carve out a niche on the landscape and go on to become, ironically, the biggest species [of other large animals] to survive the extinction at the end of the ice age in Europe.”
Not only did they see out the Ice Age – they survived tens of thousands of years of competition with the steppe bison and their descendants, the modern-day European bison (Bison bonasus), are still around today.
So elusive was the history of the bison that researchers nicknamed it the “Higgs Bison” after the long-elusive subatomic particle known as the Higgs Boson.
But 15 years of research finally paid off. The investigation involved testing of DNA from the bison’s bones found in caves in Europe, the Ural mountains in Russia, and the Caucasus mountains in Eurasia.
Nuclear DNA (from both parents) and mitochondrial DNA (from the mother) were examined.
“We could see that the nuclear DNA was very obviously like the steppe bison,” Cooper said. “The mitochondrial [was] telling us another [ancestor]: cattle.”
A major step, but without a hybrid skull the team was unable to assess what the animal looked like and ate. That’s where the cave paintings came in and had a major impact on the study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.
The researchers contacted scientists who work on the cave art, which is in France, and asked them, ‘Have you ever noticed anything funny about the bison? Because we have [discovered] a second species,” Cooper recalled. “They said, ‘Ah, at last! Someone finally believes us. We’ve been telling our colleagues for years that there are two forms of bison in the cave,’ which had been previously explained as artistic or cultural or stylistic differences.”
The dates of the drawings, some of them 18,000 years old, matched the ages of the radiocarbon-dated bison bones, and the find finally enlightened scientists on both sides of the equation.
Image credit: Carole Fritz
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