Thursday, 31 October 2013

The Quagga specimen

There are 23 preserved skins, 7 complete skeletons and few skulls of the Quagga left on this world. It is not surprising that some of the skeletons belong to the same individual of some skins, perhaps even all. Most stuffed Quaggas can be found in Germany, others in the Netherlands, France, Great Britain, South Africa, USA, Sweden and Russia. Looking at all the different Quagga specimen, which include complete adult individuals as much as foals and only a part of a leg, gives you a fairly good idea of the degree of variation within the Quagga subspecies.



The skin of the last living Quagga, well-preserved colour (Photo: ©Artis Museum)



Cape Town












New Haven

No photo found. Probably not on display. 



No photo found.


No photo found. 



No photo found. 



No photo found.





The only skeleton on display that I am aware of is that of the Grant Museum:

You might be wondering what happened to the Quagga mare that was photographed in 1870 and died in 1872 and if she is among the stuffed skins or skeletons that are preserved till today. The stripe patterns of the two specimens in London do not fit the animal, nor does any other specimen. Therefore she’s probably not among the skins. It would be helpful to have more accessible information on the skeletons. UPDATE: I was addressed that the London mare probably is the specimen now held at the museum of Edinburgh, since the stripe pattern do line up. For a better photo of this specimen, go here.

For more information on the Quagga skins you can have a look at this very useful list on the Quagga Project's homepage.

Call me crazy, but the stuffed skins give me hope that the real Quagga might return some day. A 2009 paper [1] reports that mitochondrial DNA has been successfully extracted from stuffed specimens of the Thylacine, Thylacinus cynocephalus, so there is the reasonable chance that some of all those Quagga skins still preserve certain amounts of DNA. Theoretically, those almost thirty individuals might be enough to recover a healthy population, but I think it is much too optimistic to expect that all of them contain enough genetic material to be cloned. It probably would be a challenge already to gain enough material for at least one individual. However, if one - or even two or three - Quaggas could be cloned one day, it would be a huge sensation. Those Quaggas could be constantly bred into the Rau zebra population which would provide a genetic base for a new near-Quagga population. 

[1] Miller, Drautz, Janecka et al. The mitochondrial genome sequence of the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus). 2009. 

Monday, 28 October 2013

Comming soon: more Quagga posts

This week will see two more posts on our favorite extinct zebra subspecies: one presenting a new Quagga life restoration, in the style of my hypothetical Rau Quagga and based on a well-preserved skin. The other one will given an overview over the two dozen preserved Quagga specimen - loads of pictures. Stay tuned! 

Corsican cattle - the "mother of Heck cattle"

Like I wrote in this post, Corsican cattle (or Corsicana) and Steppe cattle probably are the most important founding breeds of Heck cattle. The two cross animals considered to be the first Heck cattle bred by Heinz Heck both were 75% Corsican cattle. And indeed if you look at members of this breed today, there's still a large and undeniable similarity with many Heck cattle. Bear in mind that the modern Corsicana have been crossed with dairy breeds from the European main land to a large degree during the last century. So the Heck brothers worked Corsican cattle that were more primitive than those we see today, without deviant colours and so on. 
Some examples of Corsican cattle (sources are visible in the URL of the photos): 

Corsican cattle is a rather small breed, and also the horns are much too small to fit the aurochs. The positive phenotypic feature this breed contributed is the very aurochs-like wildtype colour. But it also has grayish or beige variants in cows and bulls with prominent saddles, and we see exactly the same colours in Heck cattle. Also the horn shape greatly resembles that of many Hecks, just smaller. Some Heck cows, like an individual I saw at the zoo Haag in Austria last year, are almost indistinguishable from Corsican cows. 
In my opinion, one could easily breed "Heck cattle 2.0" by simply crossbreeding Corsican cattle and Hungarian steppe cattle. Would be pointless (= not very aurochs-like), but fun. 

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Aurochs-like cattle breeds: An overview

Of course Heck cattle is not the only aurochs-like cattle breed, not at all. But how many are there? This depends on where you draw the line. Compared with water buffalo, even Austrian Fleckvieh is “aurochs-like”. Therefore, this categorization is purely arbitrary. With the selection down below, I want to present you a list of breeds which have more than just a single aurochs-like feature (like a high-legged slender body in Chianina or huge thick horns in Watussi), but a good representation of several primitive traits. I was also struggling with myself about making a split between “phenotypically aurochs-like”, “ecologically aurochs-like” and “genetically aurochs-like” (also because sometimes I am accused of being too appearance-based), but this turns out to be very complicated. How to define and measure “ecologically aurochs-like”, including traits such as hardiness, heat/cold tolerance and food needs? There are no living aurochs that can be used as a model, and there are certainly regional differences in ecological requirements as well. The same as with genetics: there is simply not enough data (yet) to make such a list. It seems that the appearance of the cattle is the only really quantifiable aspect for such a list. Furthermore, it is questionable if such a split would be useful at all, because most, if not all, of the optically aurochs-like breeds are very hardy and robust and would be on the other list as well.

Curraleiro bull from Brazil

So here it is, my top 32 of the aurochs-like cattle on this world, roughly in alphabetical order (click on the breed if you want to see how they look like):

* I only include advanced Hecks here (like Taurus cattle, the Wörth lineage, or herds at Hellabrunn or Solling-Vogler), because many of the usual Hecks are IMO not really worth mentioning here.

Sykia cattle from Greece
You might be wondering why there are only taurine cattle on the list. Well, I would include zebuine cattle here if I was aware of a breed that bears a good resemblance to the aurochs not only in one aspect like in the miniature zebu (colour) or Watussi (horns).
Very likely there are also some quite aurochs-like cattle in the Near East and North Africa, but those are virtually inaccessible to me except a few photos. Cattle from those regions tend to be small as well. 

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Highland cattle - good or bad for breeding-back the aurochs?

UPDATE: I changed my mind on the use of Highland in the Tauros Project, or at least the number of Highland crosses they use. Highland might make it difficult to achieve a good size and a slender, athletic body and long snouts, so that the advantage of using primitive breeds only would be gone. 

At first glance, Scottish Highland cattle has everything not desirable in breeding-back the aurochs: small and very bulky body, short legs, short and calf-like skulls, thin horns of various shapes, large udders, no wildtype colour and an unnaturally long coat that causes the cattle to have problems with the heat and felting during summer. But still, Highland cattle is one of the four important founding breeds of Heck cattle and is used in the first generations of the Tauros Programme. Why using this breed in breeding-back at all?

First of all, Highland cattle is a very cold-resistant breed that is used to masses of rain and snow. The dense, overlong hair in pure Highlands is problematic, but is certainly useful in compensating the coat of some Iberian breeds which might not be as long or dense as it is desired for herds in central or northern Europe. This is certainly advantageous.
Concerning their phenotype, many aspects are undesired of course. But in fact there is a number of Highlands that do show aurochs-like horns that face forwards-inwards and are quite thick:

© Martin Werker on flickR

Also, Highland cattle is known for its long curly hair between their horns, giving them their cute appearance. This is in fact another useful feature, because it helps to add the curly hair on the head that is applied to the aurochs in historic sources. This feature is present in Hungarian Steppe cattle, Heck cattle, Lidia, Maronesa and some Sayaguesa, but other breeds might need a bit of a “push” for that feature by Highland cattle.

More curly front head hair, please!

So Highland mainly has 3 useful features for breeding-back: good resistance to cold and humidity, good horns if the right individuals are chosen, and long and curly hair between the horns. However, considering the amount of negative features in the breed, Highland cattle should only be used very carefully. Highland contributed many of the undesired traits in Heck cattle that we still see today (because of inconsequent selection). The Tauros Programme is aware of the fact that too much Highland can lead to “Heck cattle 2.0”, therefore this breed is used only in the first cross generations.

And how did they work out? Tauros Project has several Maremmana x Highland crossbreeds that all look interesting. Some of them seem to be coloured red, which is surprising because red is supposed to be recessive under wild-type colour. Many of them show the brindle pattern, which is dominant in wild-type coloured animals and therefore easy to select out. The horns of the crosses are quite upright and straight, but really huge in some individuals (especially some of the bulls, of which no pictures are online). The body is either bulky or longlegged, depending on the individual.

The cross cows at Kempen~Broek have been covered by a Sayaguesa bull, and the calves should be about one year old or so. I don’t have high-resoluted up-to-date photos of these F2 crosses, but judging from what I have seen so far, about the half of them has a good wild colour (which is accordant to the 2. Mendelian rule), although the dimorphism is much reduced (Sayaguesa influence). Let’s see what their offspring will look like. 

(Maremmana x Highland) x Sayaguesa young bull; zoom from