Texas Longhorn's Genetic History Decoded: How the Cattle First Arrived in the U.S.

First Posted: Mar 26, 2013 12:11 PM EDT

The Texas Longhorn is known nationwide for its impressive rack of long horns which can extend up to seven feet in length in both steers and cows. As American as it comes, the Longhorn is shown at rodeos throughout the United States. Yet now, scientists have delved into the genetic history of these animals, revealing that they have a hybrid global ancestry.

The Texas Longhorn itself is bred for the beef industry, known for the leanness of its meat. Known for their innate gentle disposition and intelligence, these creatures are also increasingly being trained as riding steers.

In order to trace the genetic history of these fascinating animals, though, researchers analyzed almost 50,000 genetic markers from 58 cattle breeds--the most comprehensive analysis to date. It revealed the history of the breed, marking how the cattle first arrived on the shores of the U.S.

The scientists found that about 85 percent of the Longhorn genome is "taurine," which means that the cattle are descended from the ancient domestication of the wild aurochs that lived in the Middle East about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. This is why the Longhorn looks similar to purer taurine breeds such as the Holstein and the Angus.

The remaining 15 percent of the genome was "indicine," which means that the Longhorns also are descended from the aurochs that were domesticated in India. With a characteristic hump on the back of their necks, the indicine cattle eventually spread into Africa and to the Iberian peninsula.

It was some time before the Longhorn finally wound up in Texas, though. Christopher Columbus first brought European cattle over on his ship; many of them became feral, roaming the plains and re-evolving ancient survival traits that had been previously bred out of their ancestors. The cattle became leaner, developed larger horns and became better able to resist heat and drought.

It wasn't until after the Civil War that the Texas Longhorn finally got its name. The first Texans rounded up wild herds and began supplying beef to the rest of the country, eventually breeding them and creating the modern-day Texas Longhorn. Now, the cattle are used as mascots, displayed in rodeos and are famed for their impressive horns.

The findings are published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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