Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The Tauros Project

The Tauros Project (or Tauros Programme) is a research and breeding programme concerning the Aurochs. It’s the most recent and most extensive breeding-back effort for this species. Tauros Project integrated into the European Rewilding Program and their ambitious goal is to breed several lineages of aurochs-like cattle that resemble the Aurochs to the largest possible extent and that are fit for being released into natural habitats to become part of the respective ecosystem again. It is a cooperation between universities such as Wageningen and foundations like the Megafauna Foundation or the Dutch Stichting Taurus.

The Methods

The Tauros Programme started in 2009, after a set of hardy, aurochs-like primitive cattle breeds was chosen and composited. The breeding result (called “Tauros” by the project) will not be one single breed, but a number of lineages bred in and suited to different regions of Europe, to make sure that the Tauros cattle can cope in all the regions they are supposed to live in. In the first phase, the cattle will be bred for quantity by numerous crossings that might produce hardy cattle with an authentic (but not yet stable) phenotype. The breeding consists of controlled crossings but also natural breeding done by the cattle themselves.
Parallel to that, a  number of studies are currently being carried out concerning the Aurochs’ genome and that of domestic cattle, as much as on the vegetation use of cattle and therefore their ecologic role. The genetic information will be helpful for identifying genetic material that is common in the aurochs but split-up in modern-day cattle. This information will be used in the second phase, when the cattle is bred not only for phenotypic but also genetic resemblance to the aurochs. To make sure the cattle is hardy and robust enough (all the founding breeds are hardy landraces anyway), the cattle used in the Tauros Programme roam freely all the year round and get no or only scarce supplementary food during winter, just like other cattle living in grazing projects. They basically live semi-feral until the make-up of the Tauros cattle is ready for the third phase: being fully released into wilderness areas. Natural selection will refine the phenotype*, hardiness and natural instincts of the cattle and is the only way to truly make them become a part of their ecosystem again. So Tauros Project utilizes both breeding-back and dedomestication.

* Of course, recessive undesired features still can re-appear, unless they get effectively purged out.

To avoid mistakes done with Heck cattle, Tauros Project set up a catalogue of selection criteria (not only phenotypic criteria) to ensure that there is a clear breeding target. Furthermore, a herd book will be set up to make the breeding transparent.

The breeds

Trying to find the balance between a broad genetic basis but few unwanted features, Tauros Project selected 7 basic breeds, that I’ll briefly introduce here:

Maremmana primitivo: Large** to very large-sized breed; aurochs-like colour except for the lack of red pigment in the coat and light saddles in the bull; large and upright horns, very thick in the bull; legs usually long, body shape comparably athletic; skull shape longish and aurochs-like; dewlap large, udder size small to medium-sized;

Maremmana primitivo bull in Kempen~Broek (Photo: Ark Natuurontwikkeling)
Sayaguesa: Large breed; aurochs-like colour except for a very reduced sexual dichromatism and sometimes reduced primitive markings; small to medium-sized horns of variable curvature, facing forwards; long-legged, comparably athletic body with a well-pronounced S-shaped back; skull shape longish and aurochs-like; dewlap usually large, udder small to medium-sized;

Sayaguesa cow in Keent (Photo: Tauros Programme)
Pajuna: small to medium-sized breed; aurochs-like colour except for light saddles in bulls and some dark cows; horns small to medium-sized and of variable curvature, facing forwards; aurochs-like proportions and athletic body; skull shape usually longish; dewlap large, udder size small on average;  

Pajuna cow in Keent (Photo: Tauros Programme)
Limia: medium-sized breed; aurochs-like colour except for light saddles in bulls and occasionally dark cows; horns small to medium-sized, of variable curvature and facing forwards; proportions usually long-legged with a comparably athletic body; skull shape shorter than in the aurochs; dewlap comparably short, udder size small to medium-sized;

Maronesa: small to medium-sized breed, larger animals can occur; aurochs-like colour except for bulls sometimes lacking the eel stripe or rarely very dark cows; horns comparably large, usually thick in bulls, aurochs-like curvature in bulls and sometimes in cows as well, facing forwards; proportions aurochs-like in the cows, bulls more longish than male aurochs, S-shaped back; skull shape usually comparably short; dewlap usually medium-sized to large, udder size varying but small on average;

Maronesa group in Keent (Photo: Tauros Programme)
Podolica: large to very large-sized breed; aurochs-like colour except for the lack of red pigment in the coat, bulls with saddle or very lightly coloured cows; horns usually small and of variable size; long-legged and aurochs-like proportions, athletic body; skull usually longish; dewlap size varying, udders small on average;

Scottish Highland: small-sized breed; domestic colour, no sexual dichromatism; horns large and of variable curvature; short-legged, domestic body; paedomorphic skull; medium-sized dewlap, udders medium-sized to large;

** I consider breeds with bulls below 140 cm at the withers a small breed, 140-150 cm medium-sized, 150-160 large, 160-180 very large-sized.

Many of those breeds are from the uplands of Iberia and Italia, and they cope well living semi-feral in the Netherlands. As you see, most of them resemble the aurochs to a certain degree already, some of them are way more aurochs-like than average Heck cattle. Highland is the least aurochs-like breed of this selection (some individuals can have good horns though), but it increases the genetic diversity in the population and it is a very hardy breed that is used to cold and wet winters. Nevertheless, Highland cattle will be used only in the first cross generations to avoid getting too many undesired features in the pool. The usage of breeds also reflects the regional adaption of the cattle. For example, Highland cattle won’t be used in Southern Europe. Some other landraces might get integrated in the programme in the future, such as Boskarin, and the use of breeds like Tudanca is restricted. The Spanish fighting bull is not included because its aggressive behaviour is a danger to visitors and all phenotypic features can be gained from the other breeds according to the programme.  

The present cross results

Tauros Project has produced a number of crosses (F1 and F2 generations) already. Here I list those breed combinations that I am aware of:

Maremmana primitivo x Pajuna

Maremmana primitivo x Limia

Maremmana primitivo x Highland

 (Maremmana primitivo x Highland) x Sayaguesa

(Maremmana primitivo x Pajuna) x Limia

 (Maremmana primitivo x Pajuna) x Highland

(Maremmana primitivo x Pajuna) x Pajuna

(Maremmana primitivo x Pajuna) x Maremmana

(Highland x Tudanca) x Sayaguesa

(Alistana-Sanabresa x Sayaguesa) x Sayaguesa

75% Sayaguesa, 25% Alistana-Sanabresa cow
Highland x Maremmana cow 
Maremmana x Pajuna bull ("Manolo Uno")
Maremmana x Limia bull ("Rocky")
Cross bulls, Highland cow
The two most-promoted and oldest bulls so far are one Maremmana x Pajuna bull (“Manolo Uno”, you see it on the banner of the blog) and one Maremmana x Limia bull (“Rocky”). Those two bulls resemble the aurochs to a certain extent and might grow large, so they are a good basis for further crossings. There is also a number of Highland x Maremmana crosses with turned out to be large-horned and have a dense, medium-long coat. Interestingly, the Highland colour seems to be dominant over wild colour, so it can be easier selected out.

Those half-Highland cows have been covered by a large Sayaguesa bull, and their offspring is born already (you can see those calves in the video above). Tauros Project also owns a 75 % Sayagues and 25 % Alistana-Sanabresa cow which has a (in my view perfectly) aurochs-like coat colour and interesting proportions.
Those crosses are only the tip of an iceberg so far, because numerous other cross calves will be born this year and the following years, also of other breed combinations.

The regions

Sayaguesa and Maronesa cows in Keent (Photo: Tauros Project)
Maremmana and Limia cows along with two cross calves in Keent (Photo: Tauros Project)
Maronesa cow in Faia Brava (Photo: Tauros Project)
 The two main breeding herds of the Tauros Programme are located in the Netherlands, precisely in the reserves Keent and Kempen~Broek, but numerous herds in other countries are about to be set up. For example, a herd was started with Maronesa and Sayaguesa in the Faia Brava reserve this year, and further ones in Velebit in Croatia and the Bohemian forest (CZ Republic) will follow soon. The plan is to set up and introduce herds in reserves of all five main regions of Rewild Europe (Western Iberia, Eastern Carpathians, Danube Delta, Southern Carpathians, Velebit) and even beyond that.

If you are interested in seeing more of the cattle of the programme, you can visit the Tauros Project FlickR stream. You can also have a look at http://www.megafaunafoundation.org/ or http://www.rewildingeurope.com.


  1. Is there any project to breed back the Indian Auroch subspecies?

    1. Apparently there are no projects yet, unfortunately. I'll write a blogpost on that subspecies soon.

  2. Hello, I have a question. I read that the Lidia breed was not included despite its close affinity to the Aurochs because of its aggressive nature. However, this confuses me. Isn't aggression a good thing for a rewilding project? Meekness is a sign of docility, and of bottleneck/inbreeding depression while aggression is good for wariness and group defence against wild predators. The wildest prey are in general very aggressive and hard to manage. Shouldn't this be sought after during the breeding program? To breed a wily and hard to manage animal?
    If the rewilding project is serious, then I envision the reintroducting of larger predators and if there is no serious aggressive/wary trait present. Then I would see a problem. By selecting this out, aren't you putting a large defect on the animals' survival?
    Or is it due to public safety concern?

    1. Hi, this is a good question with a complicated answer. First of all, Lidia is really hard to manage because of their wild/aggressive/nervous behaviour; this makes things more complicated and dangerous for the people involved. That's why the ABU reduced the Lidia influence in their Taurus cattle recently. The TaurOs Project avoid that by not using the breed and claiming that their behaviour is unnatural as a pretense. Furthermore, they want to emphasize their supposed difference from Heck/Taurus by claiming that these are aggressive and dangerous (which is in fact not true) and that their cattle is docile and that this even is the natural state. And yes, it also has publish relation reasons, because some people might fear a large aurochs-like bovine might be dangerous.
      Regarding the behaviour of Lidia, I think that their aggression was in fact augmented by selection for "fighting spirit" over centuries, but it is clear that docility and tameness are no natural traits either. We don't have real aurochs to compare with, but I think the behaviour of Lidia is less derived than that of tame dairy cows. But the aurochs was probably similar in behaviour to other wild cattle like Wisent, Banteng and Gaur and preferred flight over attack, except if it was already wounded or unable to flee. While Lidia is IMO extremely desirable for any aurochs project, their aggression simply gives practical problems. But the behaviour of cattle adapts to its circumstances anyway, feral cattle shy and know how to defend themselves. Even dairy cows get very dangerous and feisty when they defend their calves (even against black bears and wolves). So I don't see a problem regarding defense against predators as long as the cattle is physically able to.

    2. Julius Caesar wrote about aurochs in Gallic War Chapter 6.28:

      "...those animals which are called uri. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied..."

      If this is true, then revived aurochs should be an aggressive animal and not docile one.

    3. This passage from De Bello Gallico is well-known and often-cited, but it should not be taken too literally regarding what it says about the aurochs' temperament. First of all, Caesar probably did not see any living aurochs himself, and it is only natural behaviour that a large and formidable animal becomes aggressive when injured or chased. This does not mean that the aurochs per se was an aggressive animal, I think it may have been comparable to the wisent and that its first reaction to humans was flight.
      BTW, I do not think the aurochs was docile, that would be ridiculous. The aurochs was a wild animal, and not a tame domestic cow.

  3. Aurochs is ready for a return to the mountains...
    The bull in the video is lacking the characteristic "S" shape spine that extinct aurochs once had.

    1. Yes, this bull has only a very shallow hump on this video. Now, as the bull is more than 4 years old, he has more prominent shoulder spines than back when the video was shot.