By studying ancient cave paintings, paleontologists have been able to better understand the Higgs bison’s family tree. This big bovine was a very rare hybrid species that lived in Europe and Asia when the land was especially cold during the late half of the Pleistocene.

Scientists reported Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications that the particular species was smaller and looked more balanced than its more familiar cousin. The creature was a mix between ancient cattle (known as aurochs) and the gargantuan steppe bison. The research team used DNA analysis and radiometric dating and brought their findings to French prehistory experts, who confirmed it all coincided with the archaeological record. Prehistoric humans documented the Higgs bison tens of thousands of years ago on cave walls.

Bison painted in a cave
A painting of a bison, made with black charcoal, located at the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave in Ardèche, France. Image credit: Carole Fritz.

Researchers studying cave paintings have noted for years that cave walls showed two different types of bison, but they had always believed those differences were the result of distinct artistic expressions. They then realized that the timing of the genetic timeline paleontologists had built for the steppe bison and the ancestral creatures surprisingly matched the variations in cave paintings.

“We’d never have guessed the cave artists had helpfully painted pictures of both species for us,” said author Julien Soubrier, from the University of Adelaide, as quoted by The Washington Post.

A scientific process linked to an ancient artistic expression

The study authors sequenced the nuclear and mitochondrial DNA of dozens of individuals from tens of thousands of years of history. This allowed them to identify that wisents emerged as a species 120,000 years ago. Their appearance was not similar to that of the familiar steppe bison, but they looked rather like the Higgs bison.

Knowing that its mitochondrial DNA is so similar to that of cattle, the researchers concluded that the species emerged as a result of inter-breeding between a female aurochs and a male steppe bison.

They ignore how many times this process took place or whether it repeatedly occurred over a long period. What they do know is that the female offspring eventually originated the wisent lineage.

The authors noted that recent attempts at cross-breeding bison and cattle caused infertility in males. Soubrier pointed out that the dated bones showed that the new species and the steppe bison were dominant in Europe as climate change led to significant environmental consequences.

These findings perfectly match the transitions observed in cave paintings. Some drawings show the steppe bison’s tremendous humped back, long horns and rarely proportion body, as reported by The Post.

Source: The Washington Post