The Ancestry of Ancient Aurochs Reveal How Complicated Cows Are

First Posted: Oct 27, 2015 10:34 AM EDT

You wouldn't think that cows are all that complex-but they are. Scientists have now taken a closer look at the ancestry of domesticated cattle, and have found that it's more complicated than previously thought.

The aurochs, known as Bos primigenius, were an extinct wild ox species that once ranged across the grasslands of Eurasia and North Africa about 11,000 years ago. The domestication of aurochs eventually gave rise to two major groups of cattle: Bos Taurus and Bos indicus.

Previous studies have shown that the European Bos Taurus are descended from western Asian populations of aurochs. However, very little was known about the relationship between domesticated cattle and wild aurochs in Europe, and how wild populations contributed to the evolutionary history of the cows that are present today.

In order to learn a bit more about cow ancestry, researchers extracted genetic material from a bone of 6,750 year old wild British aurochs discovered in a cave in England. Then, the scientists sequenced the complete genome of the ancient animal and compared it with the genomes of 81 domesticated B. taurus and B. indicus.

So what did they find? There was clear evidence of breeding between wild British aurochs and early domesticated cattle.

"Our results show the ancestors of modern British and Irish breeds share more genetic similarities with this ancient specimen than other European cattle," said David MacHugh, senior author of the new study, in a news release. "This suggests that early British farmers may have restocked their domesticated herds with wild aurochs."

The findings reveal a bit more about the domestication of cattle, and show that wild aurochs were part of the breeding program for much longer than expected. There was apparently a more nuanced picture of crossbreeding and gene flow between domestic cattle and wild aurochs as European farmers moved into new habitats, such as Britain.

The findings are published in the journal Genome Biology.

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