Open Access Research article

Population dynamic of the extinct European aurochs: genetic evidence of a north-south differentiation pattern and no evidence of post-glacial expansion

Stefano Mona1, Giulio Catalano2, Martina Lari2, Greger Larson3, Paolo Boscato4, Antonella Casoli5, Luca Sineo6, Carolina Di Patti7, Elena Pecchioli8, David Caramelli2 and Giorgio Bertorelle1*

  • * Corresponding author: Giorgio Bertorelle

  • † Equal contributors

Author Affiliations

1 Dipartimento di Biologia ed Evoluzione, Università di Ferrara, Ferrara, Italy

2 Dipartimento di Biologia Evoluzionistica, Università di Firenze, Firenze, Italy

3 Department of Archaeology, Durham University, Durham, UK

4 Dipartimento di Scienze Ambientali, Università di Siena, Siena, Italy

5 Dipartimento di Chimica Generale e Inorganica, Chimica Analitica, Chimica Fisica, Università di Parma, Parma, Italy

6 Dipartimento di Biologia Animale, Università di Palermo, Palermo, Italy

7 Museo di Geologia e Paleontologia G Gemellaro, Università di Palermo, Palermo, Italy

8 IASMA Research and Innovation Centre, Fondazione Edmund Mach, Trento, Italy

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:83  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-83

Published: 26 March 2010



The aurochs (Bos primigenius) was a large bovine that ranged over almost the entirety of the Eurasian continent and North Africa. It is the wild ancestor of the modern cattle (Bos taurus), and went extinct in 1627 probably as a consequence of human hunting and the progressive reduction of its habitat. To investigate in detail the genetic history of this species and to compare the population dynamics in different European areas, we analysed Bos primigenius remains from various sites across Italy.


Fourteen samples provided ancient DNA fragments from the mitochondrial hypervariable region. Our data, jointly analysed with previously published sequences, support the view that Italian aurochsen were genetically similar to modern bovine breeds, but very different from northern/central European aurochsen. Bayesian analyses and coalescent simulations indicate that the genetic variation pattern in both Italian and northern/central European aurochsen is compatible with demographic stability after the last glaciation. We provide evidence that signatures of population expansion can erroneously arise in stable aurochsen populations when the different ages of the samples are not taken into account.


Distinct groups of aurochsen probably inhabited Italy and northern/central Europe after the last glaciation, respectively. On the contrary, Italian and Fertile Crescent aurochsen likely shared several mtDNA sequences, now common in modern breeds. We argue that a certain level of genetic homogeneity characterized aurochs populations in Southern Europe and the Middle East, and also that post-glacial recolonization of northern and central Europe advanced, without major demographic expansions, from eastern, and not southern, refugia.