Researchers at the University of Texas have successfully mapped the genome of that great bovine symbol of our state, the Texas Longhorn, and discovered that their roots can be traced backed thousand of years to the other side of the world. The findings were published this week in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Biology professor David Hillis, doctoral student Emily Jane McTavish, and their colleagues at the University of Missouri-Columbia analyzed approximately 50,000 genetic markers from 58 cattle breeds to reconstruct the genetic history of our state animal.
Like most modern residents of this country, the Longhorn endured a lengthy journey before landing here. “It’s a real Texas story, an American story,” said McTavish in UT’s press release.
The Longhorn’s immigration to the New World can be traced to Christopher Columbus’s second expedition in 1493, but their story doesn’t begin there. The researchers’ new findings reveal that those horny foreigners have a lineage that stretches back to the first domestication of wild aurochs in the Middle East and India between 8-10,000 years ago.
The assumption in times past was that our beloved Longhorns were “pure” descendents of Iberian cattle, Spanish breeds which were themselves descendants of the Middle East. “It’s consistent with the Moorish invasions from the 8th to the 13th centuries,” said Hillis. “The Moors brought cattle with them and brought these African genes, and of course the European cattle were there as well. All those influences come together in the cattle of the Iberian peninsula.”
In typical Texan style, the ‘horns are more complicated than that. The new research reveals that, while roughly 85 percent of the Longhorn genome is “taurine” —descended from such Middle Eastern breeds as Holstein, Hereford and Angus —the rest of its heritage is from farther east.
The other 15 percent is composed of “indicine” genetic heritage, which is derived from breeds domesticated in ancient India. Indicine cattle have a distinctive hump at the back of their neck, which shows up in Longhorn cattle although less pronounced. These Indian cattle traveled west through Africa before coming to Spain. There ensued a horned love triangle with Middle Eastern and Spanish breeds that would produce the ancestors of our modern Longhorns.
McTavish told Texas Monthly that the convergence of these breeds is uniquely astounding. “I think it’s pretty cool that around 10,000 years ago these two different groups of people in different parts of the world had the idea to pacify these really dangerous wild aurochs,” said Mc Tavish. “Through human migration patterns across Africa you now have this breed that is the ancestry of vastly different groups”
Indeed the Texas Longhorn is a worldly beast. But also a Texan through and through: gritty and self-reliant, and not just some delicate European hybrid. Once the imported cattle arrived here in the 17th century, they became feral, roaming wild on the range. The UT researchers’ finding suggests that the cattle began to re-evolve traits that had been bred out of them due to the pressures of the heat, drought, and wild predators in Texas. Natural selection encouraged their longer horns, which were used for self-defense. Their indicine heritage was important for such a transformation, according to McTavish. Prior generations spent in the heat of India and Africa gave the longhorns the genetic juice they needed to become leaner and survive the sometimes-harsh Texas climate.
In the mid- to late-19th century, Texas Longhorns were largely rounded up to once again enter the domestic life. However, those years spent on the range could keep the breed an important contender in the cattle industry well into the future, according to Hillis. The Longhorn’s ability to flourish in hot and arid climates may be vital to the industry as the world becomes warmer. The new wealth of genetic information wrangled at UT could be used to inject that Longhorn toughness into other breeds. That sounds like one more example of a Texan showing the other wimps how it’s done.