DNA reveals the Higgs bison, a hybrid Ice Age species depicted in ancient cave art

DNA research reveals an unexpected hybrid of cattle and bison once roamed the Earth — but while the cheekily dubbed Higgs bison is a new discovery for science, ancient cave art shows our ancestors were quite familiar with the beast.

Unexpected crossbreed believed to be ancestor of the European bison

A Higgs bison appears to be depicted in this painting from the Marsoulas cave in Haute-Garonne, France, drawn during the Magdalenian period. (Carole Fritz/University of Adelaide)

Using DNA analysis, researchers have discovered that an unexpected hybrid of cattle and bison once roamed the Earth.

The 120,000-year-old species was a cross-breed of the aurochs, the ancestor of modern cattle, and the Ice Age steppe bison, ancestors of the modern American bison or buffalo. 

"Finding that a hybridisation event led to a completely new species was a real surprise — as this isn't really meant to happen in mammals," Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide and leader of the study, said in a release.

It was such a surprise, in fact, that when researchers first noticed a distinctive genetic signal from many bison fossils, they weren't entirely certain it was a different species. 

"So we referred to it as the Higgs bison," Cooper said. The name is a reference to the Higgs Boson, a subatomic particle suspected to exist since the 1960s but only confirmed in 2012.

With the help of an international team of bison conservation researchers and paleontologists, the researchers studied ancient DNA extracted from radiocarbon-dated bones in teeth from caves across Europe, the Urals and the Caucasus to confirm their discovery. 

The researchers believe the Higgs bison eventually became the ancestor of the modern European bison, previously hunted to extinction in the wild but slowly rebuilding their population thanks to conservation efforts on protected reserves like the Bialowieza forest between Poland and Belarus.

Scientists believe the newly discovered hybrid species is the ancestor of the European bison. (Bogdan Cristel/Reuters)

'Helpfully painted pictures'

But it turns out the scientists weren't the first people to come across the Higgs bison. Our ancestors appear to have depicted the beast in great detail on cave walls some 15,000 years ago.

"The dated bones revealed that our new species and the steppe bison swapped dominance in Europe several times, in concert with major environmental changes caused by climate change," said lead author Julien Soubrier from the University of Adelaide. 

"When we asked, French cave researchers told us that there were indeed two distinct forms of bison art in Ice Age caves, and it turns out their ages match those of the different species."

The drawings show bison with long horns and large forequarters — likely the steppe bison — and ones with shorter horns and humps — likely the Higgs.

"We'd never have guessed the cave artists had helpfully painted pictures of both species for us."

The study was published today in the journal Nature Communications.