Saturday, 23 November 2013

Book review: "The Aurochs - Born to be wild"

In October this year, the third recent book on the aurochs was presented at the World Wildlife Congress in Salamanca, Spain. It was written by Ronald Goderie, initiator of the Tauros Programme, Henri Kerkdijk-Otten, former manager of the project, Wouter Helmer, managing director of ARK Nature and Staffan Widstrand, manager of Wild Wonders of Europe and published by Roodbont Publishers B.V.

The book is written more in mass-market style (and I guess also to attract possible sponsors) than technical, what makes it easy to read for starters. The book gives you general information on the biology of the aurochs and tells everything important about its appearance: colour, sexual dimorphism, body shape and proportions, horns, skull. It makes clear that the Aurochs is similar to domestic cattle in looks, but also showed some clear differences.  
The book emphasizes the impact on the European culture that aurochs and cattle had, especially during the antiquary. Aurochs (or actually unspecific bulls) were in the focus of numerous legends and cults, and aurochs also were used in roman arena fights.

The ecologic context of the species is portrayed as well. It gives you an introduction into what species it shared its habitat with, during the Pleistocene as much as the Holocene. It shows that Europe was inhabited by a number of large grazers which are now either extinct or confined to single nature reserves – the book claims that the masses of herbivores in Europe once were comparable with hat we find in the African Serengeti today, although this picture is questioned in the literature. In fact, the book portrays the very controversial megaherbivore hypothesis* and overkill hypothesis as consensual mainstream opinions, but in fact there is still much debate about these.

* The megaherbivore hypothesis suggests that megaherbivores play a crucial role in shaping natural landscapes and create open land where otherwise forests would grow.

The book has a lot of nice pictures, also including two artworks of mine and of Tom Hammond (I am going to cover his aurochs art here on this blog as well). I am also very fond of the wonderful illustrations by Jeroen Helmer, which are very inspiring for me. I love the painting down below because it shows probably all aspects of the aurochs’ daily behaviour repertoire.
Aurochs and their natural behaviour, © Jeroen Helmer
“The Aurochs – Born to be wild” also introduces the Iberian primitive breeds. I think it is very good that it does not spend too much attention on Heck cattle but instead focuses on less-derived or feral breeds as those living animals closest to the aurochs.
It gives a good overview on what Tauros Project is doing; still not the “material and methods” presentation I’d like to see, but certainly useful. It also reveals a bit of the results of all the genetic research that is done under the frame of the Tauros Programme that will hopefully bring us a better view on primitive cattle phylogeny, how much of the aurochs is left and where the local hybridization events with wild aurochs happened. I actually hoped to find some recent photos of Tauros crossbreeds, but the book only shows Manolo Uno. However, I was very happy to find the photo of one of his sons at the end of the book. It’s Maremmana x (Pajuna x Maremmana). It’s clearly visible that this bull calf is going to be grayish as an adult (there was a 1:1 probability that it inherits the dilution allele from its father so this F2 is probably homozygous for this feature), but maybe it will grow larger horns than its father. There are about 150 Tauros crossbreeds now, unfortunately only few of them were presented to the public yet.

All in all, it’s definitely worth buying this book if you are interested in the aurochs, European big game or rewilding. You can purchase it here


  1. I consider it to much a coffeetablebook, there is no insight in the breeding results so far and that was what i bought the book for, since there is no such information on the site either .
    I was pleased with your article on the phenotype and colour of the predomesticated horse, but i had loved to see this on the aurochs too (in the book).
    You mention that this Manolo uno-son will be gray, but it's not clear to me if you do aplaud this or not. It is not gray as in horses, but is gray as in inhibiting red pheomelanin in some way leaving only the black eumelanin-pigment, while in all descriptions (see Cis Van Vuuren, "de oeros, het spoor terug") red pigment was predominant in cow, while the black in bulls was probably enhanced by testosteron. It beats me that the taurosproject seems to have a preference towards almost complete melanism or obliteration of all red....
    Can you shed more light on this ?

    1. Gray colours (caused by dilution alleles found in Steppe-typce cattle, Chianina and others) are not desirable in breeding an aurochs-effigy, because there is no evidence that such colours existed before domestication. Bull aurochs had phaeomelanin as well of course, you can see that f.e. in the colour of the eel stripe. Therefore, I think it is a pity that this F2 bullcalf turned out gray, but the likelihood for that was high. Tauros Project wants a correct expression of the wildtype-colour with both pheomelanin and eumelanin and no dilution alleles that cause beige, tan or gray colours.
      It is indeed a pity that Tauros Project does not give much information their crosses. There is neither a complete number of crossbreeds, nor which cross combinations exist and how many of them respectively. They only promote Manolo Uno. This shows that this project is more interested in advertising than informing, what is a pity IMO.

  2. thanks for your answer, we're on the same line i guess. I think their time-objective is a little overrun too, genetic recombination is not pooring some cups together and after a good shake, poor out the desired result....
    first i'll give all of your blogpost a nice and thorough reading, but I think I still have some questions popping up.
    best regards

    1. Yes, the time-objectives stated by Tauros Project are definitely too optimistic when its about creating a perfectly homogeneous aurochs-like cattle breed. But by 2025, they'll have their 6th cross generation, which probably will be progressed enough to be fully released into nature and refined by selective culling and natural selection (the latter will of course produce new and very desirable features that are not achievable via artificial selection and make it a wild animal on longterm sight).
      I am always very happy about questions and comments.
      Best regards