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Ancient DNA Record And Cave Art Unravel The Mysterious Origins Of European Bison

First Posted: Oct 19, 2016 05:04 AM EDT
European Bison Project Seeks A Return To The Wild
A herd of eight European bison graze 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 : Thomas Lohnes / Getty Images)

The origins of the European bison have long been unknown and now with the new analysis, their existence has been revealed through DNA and cave art. The researchers were able to trace and produce the family tree of the European bison also known as wisent.

The findings of the study that includes the species' family tree were published in Nature Communications on October 19, 2016. The researchers completed the study on almost a decade. The team examined the ancient mitochondrial DNA from 65 bison specimens dating back around 14,000 to more than 50,000 years ago and their nuclear DNA. With this, they were able to produce a coherent family tree of the species, according to Nature.

The European bison or also referred to as European wood bison is a Eurasian species of bison. It belongs to the two extant species of bison together with the American bison. There were three subspecies that have existed in the past. On the other hand, only one lives on as of today. In 1996, the creature was listed endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The recent analysis indicates that the European bison is a hybrid of two extinct animals namely the aurochs (Bos primigenius), the ancestor of modern cattle and the steppe bison (Bison priscus), which was the Eurasian ancestor of the American bison. The steppe bison vanished over 11,000 years ago. Meanwhile, the last aurochs was shot in 1627. The team was able to estimate the hybridization 12,000 years ago through the DNA.

The team also considered cave art as a source and look at prehistoric cave art. European bison was then a favorite theme of the cave painters in Europe. Colin Groves, an expert on cattle and their ancestors and on human evolution from the Australian National University in Canberra said that the alternating dominance of wisent and steppe bison might be reflected in cave paintings during this period.

Gilles Tosello, a cave art expert from Toulouse, France and Carole Fritz, a colleague, both of them were the lead artists of the art at Chauvet cave in France had observed that there are two types of bison shown in European cave paintings. In the Chauvet art, the bison they saw were presented with a very high shoulder and long horns compared with the rump. This was about 30,000 to 36,000 years old. On the other hand, in the recent cave art, the Magdalenian period dated around 17,000 to 10,000 years old, they saw the animals that have a more horizontal backbone and smaller horns. These were likely the steppe bison and wisent respectively based on the fossil record.

Hans Lenstra, an expert on the genetics of domestic animals and their wild relatives from Utrecht University in the Netherlands said that the study shows the strength of the ancient DNA. He further said that the connection with cave art and climate changes then yielded a reliable and interesting story.


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