Scientists Identify the Elusive Higgs Bison

Geneticists and cave paintings identify a lost species they puckishly name the "Higgs bison."

No, that’s not a typo. It’s “bison” on purpose. (Paleontologists have a sense of humor, too.) And the elusive creature is the answer to a puzzle that’s had geneticists puzzled.

What’s had them wondering is something they’ve found during genetic studies of steppe bison bones and teeth that just doesn’t fit. There’s been a section of late ice age bison genomes that doesn’t really belong to anything else. They’ve suspected it may belong to a heretofore unidentified species, but, absent other evidence, they weren’t sure. They temporarily named the mystery animals “CladeX.”

Lascaux (VEJA)

They may have had the evidence they sought all along, in the ancient artwork found on the walls of France’s Lascaux and Pergouset caves back in 1940. Scientists analyzing the cave paintings have noted an odd shift in the features of bison depicted in the Pergouset cave. At first — from 20,000-18,000 years ago — bison appear they way steppe bison are expected to: with long horns and prominent forequarters. But by about 13,000 years back, they look noticeably different: The painted bison have more symmetrical proportions, and their horns are thinner and shorter.

European bison in Lascaus vs. ??? in Pergouset (NATURE)

Could this be the mystery species?

Intrigued, geneticists examined the mitochondrial and nuclear DNA in bison bones and teeth from 20,000 to 12,000 years ago. These samples were gathered from 20 sites across Europe and into the Urals and the Caucasus.

It turns out that a separate species — the elusive Higgs bison — did roam the steppes from 17,000 to 13,000 years ago. This time frame matches up startlingly well with the Pergouset bison paintings.

Scientists believe the Higgs bison were offspring of steppe bison and aurochs, an extinct breed of cattle. The original steppe bison eventually led to the American bison, and scientists believe the Higgs bison was the forerunner of modern European bison.

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