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Ancient Ancestor Of The Bison Found; Thanks To Evidence Left By Cave Paintings

First Posted: Oct 19, 2016 06:33 AM EDT
BAD BERLEBURG, GERMANY - MAY 05: A herd of eight European bison chew the cudgraze in the Rothaargebirge mountain range on May 5, 2014 near Bad Berleburg, Germany. The herd is a project of Wisent Welt Wittgenstein, a government-funded initiative which last year released the herd in an effort to restock the bison in the wild. European bison were once plentiful across Europe and Russia, though their numbers were decimated to near extinction by hunting and habitat encroachment.
BAD BERLEBURG, GERMANY - MAY 05: A herd of eight European bison chew the cudgraze in the Rothaargebirge mountain range on May 5, 2014 near Bad Berleburg, Germany. The herd is a project of Wisent Welt Wittgenstein, a government-funded initiative which last year released the herd in an effort to restock the bison in the wild. European bison were once plentiful across Europe and Russia, though their numbers were decimated to near extinction by hunting and habitat encroachment.
(Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

For the longest time, researchers thought that the depictions of a strange-looking bison in a cave painting have just simply been a bad attempt at capturing the animal's image. A recent study revealed, however, that the bison drawn in these dwelling did exist at some point and is, in fact, the ancient ancestor of the cattle breed today.

The team conducting the study consisted of experts from the University of California, Santa Cruz, Polish bison conservation researchers, and paleontologists across Europe and Russia. To trace the genetic history of the species, the researchers studied ancient DNA pulled from radiocarbon-dated teeth and bones found in caves in Europe, Urals, and the Caucasus, reported the Daily Mail.

Mystery Bison Resulted in a Hybridization Event

The findings concluded that the peculiar-looking bison was the result of a cross-breeding between the steppe-bison and aurochs, the ancestor of modern cattle. Prior to this research, the resulting animal from this cross-breeding has seemingly appeared out of nowhere in the fossil record as it apparently became a separate species over time.

"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," said Professor Alan Cooper, one of the researchers. He went on to add that when the team first detected the peculiar DNA, they "weren't quite sure a species really existed" as they found the genetic signals from the bison bones to be quite odd.

They even jokingly called the mysterious beast as "Higgs's Bison," referring to the five-decade hunt for the so-called God particle in physics. Through continuous study, the team eventually found a distinctive genetic signal from many of the bone samples they have which couldn't be observed to any known species, said the Independent.

Ancient Bison Is The Largest European Species To Survive Mega-Faunal Extinction

The researchers explain that the genetic bottle-neck that modern European bison went through in 1920 resulted in the species having different genetics from its ancestor. This new species apparently dominated during frigid tundra-like periods and was the "largest European species to survive the mega-faunal extinction."

The mystery bison was first detected by Professor Beth Shapiro in 2001. "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," said Shapiro.

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