Saturday, 8 June 2013

Aurochs-like traits in living cattle

This post focuses on phenotypic aspects, I’ll cover the survival capacities and natural behaviour in cattle (and horses) in other posts soon.

It is not surprising that actually a lot of domestic cattle all over the world have single features reminiscent of the aurochs since they descend from that animal. Even common and highly-derived cattle breeds like the Frisian or Brown Swiss may display an aurochs-like curvature of the horns or colour traits such as a so-called mealy mouth or light eel stripe along the back. But only a few breeds show many aurochs-like traits at once.

Having being researching so-called “primitive breeds” (primitive does not mean inferior of some kind, but simply less-derived) for over two years now, I recognized that there are a lot of breeds that still display aurochs-like coat colours and horns living in Southern Europe, mainly Iberia and Italy. Actually, Iberia is a hotspot for primitive cattle: Alistana-Sanabresa, Avilena, Axarquia, Barrosa, Castellana, Cachena, Caldela, Frieiresa, Limia, Maronesa, Monchina, Mirandesa, Pajuna, Raca Preta, Serrana, Sayaguesa, Terreña, Tudanca, and of course Lidia, the Spanish fighting bull. To name only a few. Also some Near-Eastern and North African cattle resemble the aurochs in several aspects. In other regions you can find single breeds with aurochs-like features as well, such as Jersey cattle, the Rhodopian shorthorn and some individuals of the Texas Longhorn (which are of Iberian origin).

Aurochs-like cattle from Iberia (various images from the web)
Aurochs-like cattle belonging to the "Steppe cattle group" (various images from the web)
Cattle belonging to the "Steppe cattle group", like Maremmana, Boskarin, Podolica or Hungarian Gray, often have long legs and a slender body with a well-pronounced shoulder area, some are even very large-sized. Steppe cattle members tend to have upright horns of varying sizes and a grayish coat.
The famous Spanish fighting cattle is the breed with the most aurochs-like body conformation: an athletic body with a slender waist and high shoulder spines with strong neck- and shoulder muscles attached. Other breeds with a more or less pronounced S-shaped back are Maronesa and some Steppe cattle members, for example.

All these cattle usually live under semi-natural circumstances and are used to poor forage and rough conditions. They have been living in this state for centuries, and in some of the more natural areas they also have to cope with predators. Therefore, hardy and aurochs-like cattle surely are the best animals to work on.

Of course, there is no universal mark that defines if cattle is aurochs-like or not. After all, even Austrian Fleckvieh is aurochs-like when being compared with a Water buffalo. And people might have different conceptions of an aurochs-like animal – some emphasize the coat colour, others the horns or proportions, others may look at the whole appearance. In order to judge and compare the primitiveness of cattle objectively, it’s best to asses these aspects separately:

  • Coat colour
  • Horns*
  • Proportions
  • Body shape
  • Skull shape
  • Body size
  • Appendages (Udder, dewlap)
  • Sexual dimorphism in colour, body conformation and size

* horn size (length and thickness), horn curvature and their orientation relative to the skull should be 3 separate criteria. Some cattle have horns that are way too small but have an aurochs-like curvature and orientation, others may have aurochs-sized horns but a derived curvature and so on.

Wild-coloured cattle is indicated by a black nose, dark tail tip and reddish colour in calves. It can display several derivations so that wild-coloured cattle do not necessarily have exactly the same coat colour as the aurochs. A lack of red pigment (phaeomelanin) in wild-coloured cattle results in the grayish colour of Steppe cattle. A lack of black pigment (eumelanin) results in light brown colours such as in Barrosa or Limousin. Wild-coloured cattle may also lack sexual dichromatism and therefore have the same or a very similar colour in both sexes, such as Sayaguesa.
As you saw in my previous post, an aurochs-like body shape is defined by a slender belly and tall shoulder spines creating an S-shaped back. Note that tall shoulder spines do not imply that the shoulder is higher than the pelvis (like in bison), which is unlikely for the aurochs. Hips and shoulders likely were even since most mounted aurochs skeletons have their knees flexioned too much.

By these characters, one could make a chart and score a number of cattle against each other. I will do that in a future post. The problem with such a method is that some cattle populations are very heterogenous, so that it’s safer to score individuals against each other than breeds.

We have looked at the phenotype exclusively now, but of course the ecologic capacities and, to a certain extent, behavioural traits are very important as well. An aurochs-like appearance does not necessarily imply hardiness and robustness, but usually the less-derived breeds live under harsh conditions compared to cattle in intensive agriculture and therefore are adapted to less-qualitative or limited food, living without a shed or barn all the year round, cope with weather extremes, or in some cases even defend themselves against predators.
Of course regional adaption should be taken into account. A Southern Iberian landrace can be very hardy and survive abandoned in their home range with ease, but may have problems in Denmark for example because it simply lies in a different climatic zone. But many Southern European primitive breeds do well in grazing projects in the Netherlands or Germany. More details on the surviving capacities of cattle in another post.


  1. Congratulations fot the post!!!!!
    I didn't know some Iberian breeds of the photo!
    What do you think about shorthorn cattle from Anatolia and Balkans??

    1. ANd what about Chianina?? Once I thought it could be a good breed for a breeding back project. . .buf after seeing the results of Taurus-crossing I change my ideas.. .

    2. Thank you! The Rhodopian shorthorn looks like Heck cattle with short horns to me. If they are hardy enough and locally adapted, they might be useful for a breeding-back project in that region. Anatolian cattle can look interesting, although their phenotype is not necessarily more aurochs-like than that of Iberian breeds. Maybe they are genetically closer to the aurochs, simply because they are closer to the domestication centre, but that requires testing. Chianina, if used wisely, can produce good results in breeding back - at least phenotypically. I'll write a lot of stuff about Taurus cattle in future posts, stay tuned ;-). I am very happy that you're reading my blog!

  2. Barrosã Bull Vs Barrosã Bull and Maronesa Bull Vs Galega Bull(?):

    1. Photos of some Portuguese breeds:

  3. What do you think of the bulls of video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRwbpJryfnc)?

  4. One Topic of one Forum in Castellano about breeding back of Aurochs:

    1. http://w11.zetaboards.com/AnimalWarriors/topic/9037858/1/

  5. I wonder why the white cattle with dark points, (ears, muzzle) in cavepaintings are not considered ? Looks like everyone is stuck on the Dark coloured Aurochs. The white cattle makes me think of White Park cattle and the British White cattle breed.

    1. Thank you your interesting article.
      It's written from somebody, who knows some basics in cattle breeding. That's not allways standard on information from ecology-biologists and other people who like to save the nature.
      But I don't understand that in your and in other blogs the cattle from north and east asia (yakut, korean, mongoliean, kalmuk) is never menthioned. Is that different from horse, no issue?
      Kind regards
      Gerhard Fankhauser

    2. The reason why I haven't covered Eastern taurine cattle much yet is that I don't have much information on them and I don't have the time to research them thoroughly at the moment. The Near East is uncharted land in terms of primitive cattle anyway, I guess there are a lot of populations (probably not even specific breeds) exhibiting a lot of primitive traits (also genetic) that the breeding back initiatives are not aware of and that are probably currently being swept by derived cattle genes.
      I would also like to write more on zebus and the Indian aurochs, and finally the african aurochs and also aurochs genetics, but I simply don't have the time at the moment. That's why I write so much on Heck cattle at the moment - i have all the info in my head, I just have to sit down and make an article of it.

  6. My family has a large tract of somewhat wild'ish land in the Southeast US and we are investigating various ways to rehab it naturally by crating the most traditional "herd effect" possible, much like Allen Savory suggests for land rehab. I've been trying to find out if there are any primitive "Aurochs-like" breeds in the US... Primarily Iberian breeds such as Sayaguesa and Maronesa. We're also considering pineywoods cows, which I have access to. This is not so much about an experiment but about preservation/conservation of ancient bovine breeds that can thrive in the habitabt we can offer, while bettering the land. Does anyone here have any info in this regard? Thanks for any feedback.

    1. I don't know if there are any Maronesa, Sayaguesa, Pajuna etc. in America, but I don't think so. If you really want to be sure, I would ask the breed associations.
      The most aurochs-like breed in the US that I can think of is Corriente. A lot of them are actually "better" than many Iberian breeds. But they are, AFAIK, not an endangered breed in contrast to most of the Iberian ones.

    2. Thank you for responding Daniel. I found a few sites last night showing cows with very familiar features. Ex: http://www.heritageleanbeef.com. I'll inform if I have any luck in the search.
      By the by, really enjoy the blog. Well done!

    3. I'm working on a auroch project in the states, if your still looking to stock your land contact me as we'll need places to stock herds