How Cave Art and Ancient DNA May Have Uncovered the 'Higgs Bison'

By Botkin-Kowacki, Eva | The Christian Science Monitor, October 18, 2016 | Go to article overview

How Cave Art and Ancient DNA May Have Uncovered the 'Higgs Bison'


Botkin-Kowacki, Eva, The Christian Science Monitor


What do you get when you cross a cow and a bison? Give it thousands of years and you might just get an entirely new species.

The origin of the European bison has long puzzled scientists. But new research suggests the living bovid actually is the result of two extinct animals, the steppe bison and the aurochs (cattle- ancestors), mating some 120,000 years ago.

This hybridization story "challenges the way we think about how species form," says study senior author Alan Cooper of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide.

This new conclusion arose out of more than a decade of detective work, chronicled in a paper published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

Dr. Cooper and his colleagues stumbled upon the first clue to the conundrum while using fossil bison bones to measure the impact of climate changes through time.

"When we started extracting DNA from these bones we found a good chunk of them had a very different genetic signal to anything that anyone had ever seen before," Cooper recalls in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "It looked like a new species, which we thought was quite odd."

The team took to calling the mystery species "bison X" and jokingly dubbed it the "Higgs bison" while they were investigating. (The Higgs boson is a subatomic particle first predicted to exist in the 1960s by Peter Higgs that wasn't actually confirmed until 2013.)

Although the animal's DNA showed that it was a hybrid between aurochs and steppe bison, the scientists didn't know what this animal's life was like, what happened to the hybrid species, or what it even looked like.

But luckily, some witnesses left unmistakable evidence behind: cave drawings of both the hybrid and the steppe bison.

"We contacted French cave art researchers who happily told us that you can see two quite different forms of bison in the cave art," which the experts had never understood, Cooper says. "They'd been put down to regional artistic differences or cultural differences."

But Cooper and his team had the other pieces of the puzzle: bison bones and DNA.

When the team radiocarbon-dated the bison bones, they found that bison X and the steppe bison took turns dominating the European ecosystem - and that the timing matched the cave paintings, which recorded the dominant bison of each era.

This research reveals "how genomic data from ancient species can help to not only understand their origin and evolution, but also our own history," writes David Diez del Molino, a postdoctoral researcher in the palaeogenetics research group at the Swedish Museum of Natural History who was not part of the study, in an email to the Monitor. …

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