Friday, 6 September 2013

Why doing breeding-back at all?

While my previous posts here focused on the breeding-back projects in general and primitive, suited domestic breeds of cattle and horses in detail, one might ask the question: why doing, or even trying, breeding back at all?

First of all, the loss of every species because of man is tragic. Therefore conservation tries to reduce destructive human influence to a minimum, and thereby preserves and reintroduces endangered species. The Przewalski’s horse, Wisent, Mauritius hawk, the Oryxes or the Milu have been saved in the last second, and big cats and other large game are being reintroduced in areas in which they have been extirpated. It is obvious that it is a very important, if not the goal of zoological conservation to preserve or reintroduce endangered species in their natural habitat, because they belong there and fill a niche in their ecosystem.
The Aurochs, the Tarpan and the Quagga are animals just like these I mentioned above. They have been extirpated by habitat destruction and excessive hunting only centuries ago, but had been integral parts of their respective ecosystems for millennia. Without anthropogenic influence these species still would be around in the wild, and probably in more or less high numbers. The only difference between those animals which are in the focus of modern conservation programmes is that they are already lost. But breeding-back or effigy breeding is a way to create adequate substitutes for these animals in the wild that are also satisfying for interested people; effigy breeding, in my opinion, can be seen as a tool for conservation instead of merely something for fanciers.
The Plains Zebra once was very common in South Africa in form of the Quagga. Regardless of the validity of the megaherbivore hypothesis*, Europe was home to several species of large herbivores. Three of these species are still left (Wisent, Elk, Red deer), and it’s my heart’s desire that these will roam the wilderness on most of the continent again. But these three species are more browsers than grazers (with the exception of the wisent, which seems to be a semi-intermediary grazer [1][2]), so the grazing niche is virtually vacant without wild cattle and horses. We know that Bos primigenius and Equus ferus were present in Europe during the Holocene, and the former was a particularly common animal. Reintroducing them is just as legitimate as reintroducing wisents and elk, although their wild type is lost.

* The controversial megaherbivore hypothesis suggests that large herbivores play a more or less important role in shaping their environment by feeding.

Regardless of the merely nomenclatorial issue if you consider domestic animals as part of the species they derived from or not, domestic cattle and horses very likely are ecologically and behaviourial very similar, if not identical, to their wild types. But certainly not all breeds of these two animals would do well in the wild or present an authentic picture, and that’s where breeding-back comes in.

One way to create a substitute for the aurochs is to choose a number of suitable, hardy landraces for a specific region and to release them and build up a feral population. Natural selection would start to work on this population and certainly you can expect to see phenotypic and behavioural changes after some time. The population would get increasingly adapted to their habitat, but as several examples of feral cattle show, they do not necessarily resemble the aurochs in all known features, and it would take natural selection a very long time to create a homogenous strain of cattle that looks like a genuine wild bovine instead of a bunch of feral domestic animals that is considered a pest in other regions of the world (see Amsterdam Island). Furthermore, it would be much easier to communicate deaths of wild-looking cattle and horses to the public (“they are wild animals, that’s what happens in nature”) than explaining why conservation watches cute dairy cows or ponies starving during winter. Imagine the public outcry to a photo of wolves hunting down an adorable Shetland pony!
Moreover, ancient-looking cattle and horses, or Plains zebras at least resembling the Quagga, are probably more satisfying for zoologists and visitors, who both want to get an authentic impression of what wilderness was like before man started to diminish it. In my opinion, people and nature deserve authenticity. And if there are authentic and very hardy breeds suited to live in the wild, why choosing any other breed for rewilding?
In the case of the Quagga, it is even easier to argue in favour of the selective breeding project. It is not a novelty that a different subspecies is reintroduced into the area where another subspecies has been exterminated earlier, and in this case the Rau zebras are clearly more desirable than “usual” Burchell’s zebras.  

Another reason why breeding back is not pointless is it’s value for zoological education. This was one of the reasons why the Heck brothers started their aurochs experiment and is probably still valid today. Thanks to breeding-back, the aurochs escaped oblivion; people learn about its existence at zoos and several books (it is even listed in an English guide to British mammals), and the constant confusion with the wisent is now quite rare in the German language at least. Effigy breeding, if executed carefully and with the necessary background knowledge, can deliver a good impression of what these extinct animals looked like. They also serve as a reminder against the careless destruction of nature and persecution of species, because it always has to be made clear that an actual return of extinct animals is impossible without having enough viable genetic material of it left and therefore we should take care of the species that are left.

Some people may be sceptical because they think breeding-back or effigy breeding tries to revive an “ancient beast” from lost worlds that has no place in modern times. But this is clearly a wrong impression. As I explained above, effigy breeding focuses on animals that have been wiped out by man and would be still around today without hunting and habitat destruction.
The argument that breeding-back results compete with existing, endangered species also can be discarded because they all occupy different ecologic niches. For example, the aurochs tended to inhabit lower and wetter regions than the wisent did and grasses probably made up a higher percentage of their food than in the wisent. Oostvaardersplassen, for example, would be much to wet to be suitable for the wisent. It must be clear, though, that the conservation of still existing species is clearly more important and must be priority; at least in my opinion.


[1] van Vuure, Cis: Retracing the Aurochs - History, Morphology and Ecology of an extinct wild Ox. 2005.
[2] Julia Pöttinger: Vergleichende Studie zur Haltung und zum Verhalten des Wisents und des Heckrinds. 2011. 

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