Remember meForgot password?
    Log in with Twitter

article imageHybrid Ice Age Higgs bison has been hiding in plain sight

By Karen Graham     Oct 19, 2016 in Science
Adelaide - About 120,000 years ago, now-extinct steppe bison mated with aurochs, the ancient ancestor of cows, creating a rare hybrid mammal. But we have discovered this unusual animal, the ancestor of the European bison, and it was hiding in plain sight.
If you're wondering about this new creature's name, yes, it is a take on the Higgs-Boson, a subatomic particle suspected to exist since the 1960s but only confirmed in 2012.
In research published Wednesday in the journal Nature Communications, a number of questions are answered, including the mysterious appearance of the modern European bison (wisent, Bison bonasus) about 11,000 years ago. Up until now, the evolutionary history of the European bison has remained a mystery.
Wisent in the Wisentgehege Springe game park near Springe  Hanover  Germany. The European bison or w...
Wisent in the Wisentgehege Springe game park near Springe, Hanover, Germany. The European bison or wisent (Bison bonasus) is the heaviest of the surviving land animals in Europe. This male in the picture is moulting, his winter coat coming off in clumps.
Michael Gäbler (CC BY 3.0)
The discovery of the hybrid Higgs bison also gives us clues as to why there are some pieces of the European bison's DNA that still retain Cow DNA, reports CBC News. And for those of us familiar with ancient cave art drawings, we now can fully recognize the unknown hybrid species of bison and cattle depicted in great detail on cave walls over 15,000 years ago.
An international team of bison conservation researchers and paleontologists, led by the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide were involved in the study. The study included correlating data from ancient mitochondrial genomes and genome-wide nuclear DNA surveys before the hybridization was discovered.
NaturPark Bayerischer Wald: A Heck bull is taking his rest.
(Many people assume that Heck cattle are...
NaturPark Bayerischer Wald: A Heck bull is taking his rest. (Many people assume that Heck cattle are indeed, Aurochs, but are they?)
"Finding that a hybridization event led to a completely new species was a real surprise, as this isn't really meant to happen in mammals," says study leader Professor Alan Cooper, ACAD Director, according to "The genetic signals from the ancient bison bones were very odd, but we weren't quite sure a species really existed - so we referred to it as the Higgs Bison."
A steppe bison on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks. The steppe b...
A steppe bison on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks. The steppe bison is one of several extinct large mammals that roamed interior Alaska during the Wisconsinan glacial period, 100,000 to 10,000 years ago.
Bernt Rostad from Oslo, Norway
Late Pleistocene fossil records show us that the bovids in Europe consisted of two recognized forms: the aurochs (Bos primigenius), ancestor of modern cattle, and the mid/late Pleistocene ‘steppe bison’ (Bison priscus). But the European bison has no recognizable Pleistocene fossil record.
It just seemed to magically appear during the Holocene, about 11,700 years ago, coinciding with the disappearance of the steppe bison and other megafauna extinctions during the late Pleistocene. The European bison, as it has been called, managed to flourish until range reduction and hunting by humans all but brought them to extinction, according to the study.
And as Digital Journal reported in 2014, all the European bison's in existence today are all descended from the Białowieża or lowland European bison. Conservation efforts have been successful in reintroducing these magnificent creatures back into the wild in several countries in Europe where they are now forest dwellers.
And while DNA sequencing and morphology from the existing European bison indicates their close relationship to the American bison (B. bison), studies of the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) indicates a closer relationship with cattle.
Cave painting of steppe bison in Altamira  Spain.
Cave painting of steppe bison in Altamira, Spain.
But the really amazing thing about this story is that in the study of bison bones and teeth found in Paleolithic caves in Europe, the Urals, and the Caucasus, the researchers also re-examined the 820 cave drawings from the same period, but this time, they were in for a big surprise.
"The dated bones revealed that our new species and the Steppe Bison swapped dominance in Europe several times, in concert with major environmental changes caused by climate change," says lead author Dr. Julien Soubrier, from the University of Adelaide.
And when the researchers looked a little closer into the bison depicted in the cave drawings, French researchers said there were indeed two different bison depicted in the cave art. "And it turns out their ages match those of the different species. We'd never have guessed the cave artists had helpfully painted pictures of both species for us."
Bradford Foundation/Twitter
The cave paintings depict some bison having long horns and large forequarters, like the American bison which is descended from the steppe bison, or some having short horns and small humps, like the modern European bison today.
"Once formed, the new hybrid species seems to have successfully carved out a niche on the landscape, and kept to itself genetically," says Professor Cooper. "It dominated during colder tundra-like periods, without warm summers, and was the largest European species to survive the megafaunal extinctions.
The first hint of the possibility of a hybrid species of bison came in 2001, when Professor Beth Shapiro, UCSC, detected an anomaly while researching the European bison. "Fifteen years later it's great to finally get to the full story out. It's certainly been a long road, with a surprising number of twists," Professor Shapiro says.
More about higgs bison, cave drawings, hybrid bison, Aurochs, steppe bison
Latest News
Top News