PONTOTOC, Texas — A first-of-its-kind genetic analysis of Texas Longhorns shows the cattle breed – as much a state symbol as the Alamo and cowboys – shares a diverse ancestry that spans the globe and mirrors the spirit and self-sufficiency of the quintessential Texan.
The Longhorn's roots are traced back thousands of years to far-off places such as the Middle East and Asia, with the animal's direct descendants crossing the Atlantic with Christopher Columbus. They grew longer horns to protect against their New World predators and even rebounded from a post-Civil War beef demand that decimated herds.
The study's authors say the genetic influences helped create a hardy breed of cattle that is independent and well adapted to the land.
"I think Texans admire a lot of the characteristics they see in Texas Longhorns because it's some of the same characteristics humans had to have to thrive in Texas," says David Hillis, a University of Texas biologist and geneticist involved in the yearslong study of the Longhorn genome. Hillis and one of his doctoral students, Emily Jane McTavish, joined researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia for the study, which was published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
They examined some 48,000 genetic markers on DNA from 58 cattle breeds, confirming the Longhorns of today are direct descendants of Spanish cattle brought by Columbus to Hispaniola on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. Other Spanish colonists brought the descendants of those cattle to Mexico in 1521, where the animals flourished. Some became wild and migrated over the next centuries to present-day Texas.
In the Lone Star State, they became targets of the big cattle drives of the late 1800s – memorialized in countless Hollywood westerns – in which they were rounded up to feed a growing demand in the eastern U.S. for beef and tallow, an essential ingredient in candles.
Today, the cattle are carefully managed by ranchers like Hillis, who has about 50 at his Texas Hill Country ranch. Longhorns, some weighing as much as a ton, graze on whatever the rocky ground and minimal rain allow to grow.
On the range, the Longhorns are surprisingly adept at maneuvering among trees and branches.
"Longhorns are very alert, very intelligent," Hillis said. "They're very good at watching what's going on around them."
DNA evidence reviewed in the study traces Longhorns back thousands of years to cattle in the Middle East, India and Pakistan. The Middle Eastern animals were brought to Europe while the India-Pakistan cattle spread through Asia. Both wound up in Africa, which became a "kind of mixing ground" where they adapted to a hot, dry climate and built up resistance to disease, Hillis said.
"Longhorns are unusual in being an ancient breed," he said. "There's not many of those left in the world."
The new research shows 15 percent of the genetic makeup of Longhorns reflects the India-Africa influence. It's possible Moors brought African cattle with them during their invasion of Spain from the eighth to the 13th centuries, or that cattle were directly imported from Africa to the nearby Canary Islands, where Columbus likely put them aboard his ships.
"We're still actually trying to track that down," Hillis said. "That's probably the most interesting ... and that they don't seem to have influences from other recent European breeds."
McTavish became involved after starting salamander-focused graduate work at the University of Texas. Her Longhorn project – "a lot more interesting than salamanders," she laughs – began in 2009.
"One of the neat things to me is that we know cattle strongly are selected by breeders for traits," she said. "And despite the impact of all that selection, Longhorns still have a very strong signal of geography."
The distinctive long horns are a relatively recent evolutionary development, due to natural selection and a need to survive in the rugged Southwest where coyotes, wolves and mountain lions were predators.
"The ones that had the long horns were better able to defend their calves and were able to survive the best," Hillis said.
Horns now typically can be 70 inches long from tip to tip, nearly a couple feet longer than horns on cattle mere decades ago. That's the result of ranchers selectively breeding cattle with the best physical characteristics.
Historically, management of the Longhorn in Texas wasn't always a consideration. The cattle drives depleted herds by the turn of the 20th century. In 1927, the federal government – later joined by Texas – began working to preserve Longhorns. By the 1960s, when the Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America was founded and the breed became registered, only about 1,500 head of genuine Longhorns existed.
Today, the Fort Worth-based association estimates there are several hundred thousand Longhorns, and the breed has become a favorite for consumers willing to pay a premium for low-fat beef from grass-fed animals.
"The animals are very lean by nature of their evolution," says Debbie Davis, whose family raises Longhorns in Bandera County about 75 miles northwest of San Antonio and belongs to the Cattlemen's Texas Longhorn Conservancy, which contributed to the study. "It's a healthier product and people on a high-protein, low-starch diet seek out this beef."
University of Texas mascot Bevo – arguably the most famous and visible Longhorn in the state – belongs to John T. and Betty Baker, who have a ranch northwest of Austin and have travelled to Spain to see cattle there that resemble their animals but have shorter horns.
"They're tough, they're brave, they're self-sufficient," she said of Longhorns. "All those things you like in an animal. You don't have to worry about them all the time. You don't have to baby them. I'd say the boldness, the bravery of the Longhorn, is symbolic of Texas."