Coat Colors of Highland Cattle

We conducted a DNA study on the coat colors in Highland Cattle and the information on this webpage is an illustrated summary.

This webpage was mounted on April 18, 2014 by Sheila Schmutz. It was moved to a different server in August 2019.

Highland cattle are a very old breed. They are both long-haired and longhorned, and they come in several solid coat colors and also brindle.

The interaction of two genes is responsible for the six solid colors.

Black and Shades Thereof

Cattle that have a black nose have at least one ED allele at the E locus or MC1R gene. These cattle come in three shades: black, dun, and silver dun.

The shades are caused by a second gene that acts in a co-dominant pattern. There is a deletion (del) in the PMEL gene that causes a Highland to be dun instead of black if there is one del allele, and silver dun if both alleles are del.

Note that the dilution of Charolais cattle is caused by another mutation in this PMEL gene.


The Highland cow at the left is solid black, although she carries the red allele "e". Her genotype is ED/e. At PMEL she is +/+ or homozygous wild type, with no deletion.


The heifer at the left, has one del allele at PMEL and one ED allele at MC1R. Her genotype is ED/e, del/+. She is called dun in Highland coat color terminology.

Silver Dun

The Highland cow at the left is a silver dun. Her genotype is ED/e, del/del.

Red and Shades Thereof


Red can be caused by either an e/e genotype at MC1R, or an E+/e genotype. The E+ allele is common in Highland cattle and acts as if it were the most recessive of the three alleles at the E locus.

The Highland cow at the right is red with an E+/e genotype. She is a deep red and therefore does not have a deletion at the PMEL gene, but is +/+.


The cow at the right is an example of a yellow Highland. Her genotype is e/e, del/+.


The cow at the right is an example of a "white" Highland. Her genotype is E+/E+, del/del. It is likely that cattle that are e/e, del/del may be even paler.


Brindle cattle need at least one copy of the E+ allele at MC1R because that allele allows an animal to produce both the red phaeomelanin pigment and the black eumelanin pigment, instead of only one or the other. This young male Highland is a brindle. His genotype is E+/e. He has no deletion at PMEL and so his stripes are red and black, not paler versions of those colors.

Another mutation at another gene, ASIP is the main cause of brindle however. This allele is known as ABr. This mutation was discovered in a research lab in France, studying Normande or Normandy cattle. This Highland male has one copy of this brindle allele and one copy of the wild type or normal allele. His genotype is therefore ABr/A.

Brindle is harder to see as "stripes" in Highland cattle because of their long hair than in Texas Longhorn, for example. Highland cattle that have a del allele or two copies of the deletion allele and are brindle, and are even harder to see as striped.

The Highland calf at the right is homozygous for brindle, or ABr/ABr, and has the necessary E+ allele. It is E+/e. But it also has a deletion allele, del/+. There should be so dun stripes among the yellow, but I can't see them in this photo.

Special thanks to Dr. Patricia White for help in collecting DNA and for the wonderful photos she or her husband took and shared with me for this study. Thanks also to Dr. Glen Hastie, for providing samples from his Highland cattle in Australia. (He has a webpage on Highland colors also).


Genetics of Coat Color in Cattle, Main Page

Sheila M. Schmutz, Ph.D., Professor Emerita

Department of Animal and Poultry Science

University of Saskatchewan