Today, near the Poland-Belarus border roams a semi-wild population of bison. The European bison is the continents largest land mammal, but surprisingly its origins have been unknown until recently. Using ancient DNA and carve art, scientists have been able to retrieve the origin of the bison. However, this mystery was no quick project. It took scientists over a decade to produce a coherent family tree of the bison.
To begin solving the mystery, scientists studied, "ancient mitochondrial DNA derived from 65 bison specimens ranging from 14,000 to more than 50,000 years ago". Although, this alone wasn't enough for scientists to put the pieces together. Over the decade that researchers were studying bison, many important technological advances made, and this allowed the scientists to more clearly examine nuclear DNA and start correctly piecing together the bison's family tree.
According to scientists, the bison is a hybrid of two extinct animals. These animals are the steppe bison and the aurochs (ancestor of modern cattle). It has been over 11,000 years that the steppe bison has gone extinct and 389 years since the last aurochs was roaming around. Knowing this information, researchers have estimated that the hybridization of the bison took place at least 120,000 years ago.
Many hybrid species are less fertile and fit than their parents, however this is far from true with the bison. The bison have proven to be a whole new species that are both fertile and fit. Julien Soubrier, a palaeo-geneticist, says that in order for a hybrid to be as fit and fertile as the bison, it must have had striking competitive qualities to survive during climate changes. In Europe hundreds of years ago, many of the vegetation included tundras and grasslands. Steppe bison used to roam during areas of warm climate, and migrate further north during cold climates. The traits of Steppe bison help determine what the current species of bison might behave like.
This study truly demonstrates the power of recent technological advancements and DNA!