Ice Age cave art reveals new European bison species (Higgs Bison)

Cave painting Higgs Bison

In a recent ancient DNA research, scientists find that Ice Age cave artists recorded a previously unknown hybrid species of bison and cattle in great detail on cave walls more than 15,000 years ago.

The mystery species, known as the Higgs Bison, originated over 120,000 years ago. It may be the offspring of the extinct Aurochs (the ancestor of modern cattle) and the Ice Age Steppe Bison, which ranged across the cold grasslands from Europe to Mexico.

The finding is published in Nature Communications. Researchers from the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide led the study.

They studied ancient DNA extracted from radiocarbon-dated bones and teeth found in caves across Europe, the Urals, and the Caucasus to trace the genetic history of the populations.

They found a distinctive genetic signal from many fossil bison bones, which was quite different from the European bison or any other known species.

Further analysis showed that the mystery species dominated the European record for thousands of years at several points, but alternated over time with the Steppe bison.

The Steppe bison had previously been considered the only bison species present in Late Ice Age Europe.

At the same time, French cave researchers found that there were two distinct forms of bison art in Ice Age caves. It turns out one was the Higgs Bison, and the other was the Steppe Bison.

Researchers suggest that the Higgs Bison was the largest European species to survive the megafaunal extinctions. It may eventually become the ancestor of the modern European bison.

Citation: Soubrier J, et al. (2016). Early cave art and ancient DNA record the origin of European bison. Nature Communications 7: 13158. DOI:10.1038/ncomms13158.
Figure legend: This image is credited to Soubrier J et al.