Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Heck cattle outside Germany Pt. I: France

Undoubtedly, Heck cattle are most numerous in Germany, where they originated and are used in numerous grazing projects and zoos or farms. But from the 1980s on, Heck cattle were increasingly spread outside Germany. Members of the breed look more-or-less different in all countries, partly because of different selection by the breeders but also because of population genetics. If you fragment a population, the different alleles get spread by chance, and some of the subpopulations might have a higher rate of, partly recessive, features than others. So you will change the phenotype of a breed by spreading and fragmenting a breed inevitably, unless you select and exchange animals for a central desired objective - one would think this objective is the aurochs, but Heck cattle is not an example of an optimal realization of breeding back as you know… 

Heck cattle actually were quite popular in France before the "nazi cow" nonsense came up (more on that in a future post). France was the first country where a serious evaluation on phenotype on the local Heck cattle was done (by Claude Guintard), and you find them in a number of zoos, pastures but also grazing projects. Here you have some photos: 

As you see, the optic match with the aurochs is, like for most members of that breed, pretty mediocre. But there are worse Heck cattle (ok, the last ones are pretty bad). 
Have a look at this video which shows rather nice, swift and agile Hecks with a body as slender as in Maronesa and good colour (horns and probably size aren't good however): 

This site has pretty good animals too (Wörth lineage influence? UPDATE: Now I'm pretty sure that the bull below is a bull from Wörth): 

My congratulations to the breeder! 

When visiting Wörth, Walter Frisch (breeder of the Wörth lineage which is notable for their large and aurochs-like horns) told me that they sold their exquisite bull Aretto to french breeders, but unfortunately it died soon after a de-narcotization - I hope it passed on some of his good genes to this herd before his death. 

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Defending the Konik against an unfair critique

Sadly, breeding-back is a rather emotionalized subject sometimes. People who fancy or simply decided to fancy certain breeds for pragmatic reasons or reject others because of this tend to develop a static thought system that is very resilient and that they are unwilling to change, causing very polarized opinions. The “You don’t advocate the same breed as I do, so I dislike your breed” mindset is common in certain groups, and especially people who have to make decisions for running projects might be forced to think in a black-and-white scheme. Dogmatists interpret evidence wishfully and ignore facts that do not fit their opinion, and a certain lack of knowledge plays a role as well. I had been such a biased person for about a year long because I had not enough knowledge on this topic yet, before I realized that this is a very unscientific and narrow-minded approach that I actually never wanted to practice and therefore nowadays I try to be as open-minded and neutral as possible.
I just have to counter a critique I received about 9 months ago that I simply cannot get out of my mind because I left it unanswered. I did so because I realized that it is pointless to discuss with people who have a strong ideology and think in black and white, and because that person does not give me the impression that he is interested in doing the research on this subject properly but is rather led by a certain purpose or agenda.

Note that by “defending” the Konik I do not intend to argue that it is a wild horse relict or genetically closer to the wild horse than any other European domestic horse. The Konik merely is a hardy landrace with a phenotype that is variable but numerous individuals do show a considerable resemblance to what we know about European wild horses (I avoid the word “Tarpan” because there is so much confusion around it). That’s about it, and that's the status is what I am defending here. In the following paragraph I will post that critique claim by claim and write my clarifications in between. As you will see, this person is very quick in discrediting statements or evidence not accordant with his ideology based on superficial (or erroneous) knowledge, and this person also regularly does that with other breeds and even whole projects or directly to people. I know it is a bit unfair to dismantle this critique publically on a blog, but I certainly won’t reveal the identity of that person. Since I know that this person is a determined advocate of the Exmoor pony as a “wild horse” and argues in favour of the Exmoor, I’ll counter that as well (note that I am not biased against the Exmoor Pony at all, it’s pretty apparent from my other posts that I really like that breed/type a lot and think it is a well-suited breed for substituting the European wild horse; but when I think a statement/comparison is erroneous, I just have to point it out).

See attachments including an underjaw of an Exmoor pony: broad jaw with deeply rooted teeth.

Without a comparison to a Konik jaw, this fact is absolutely no argument against the Konik. Despite extensive research, I did not find a Konik skull on the web (if any of you has, I’d be grateful for a link). But if you ever held a horse tooth in your hand, you have probably realized how large and long it is. In fact every veterinarian will confirm to you that teeth are deep-rooted in all horses (some surely randomly chosen horse skulls or graphs with teeth in situ, here, here and here). And since no case of a semi-feral Konik feeding on natural grounds having dental problems has ever been reported as far as I know, I don’t have a reason to assume that the jaws of Exmoors are suited any better to natural grazing. Furthermore, the skulls of Koniks and Exmoors are quite similar and the jaws of Koniks of the “robust type” are surely not less robust than those of Exmoors.

Koniks are a composite of local ponies. In mtDNA studies, they nowhere cluster as being a descendant of any wild horse.

This is in fact correct, the breed history of the Konik evidently shows that the Konik is a landrace that descends from hardy rural ponies, mainly from the Bilgoraj region of Poland [1]. It is also true that recent genetic studies do not set the Konik apart from other domestic horses nor do they suggest that it experienced more wild horse introgression than other European wild horses. But one should not forget that the domestication process of the horse involved a great number of wild mares and only a very small number of wild stallions [2,3,4] and that mitochondrial DNA only tells you about maternal ancestry. Inclusion of wild mares into domestic stock all over Europe is very probable for whole Europe based on the genetic evidence [2,3,4] and the fact that wild stallions are virtually intractable is probably the reason why only very few of them were used in domestication and therefore why domestic horses have such few Y chromosome variants. An Y haplotype or a complete Y chromosome not present in any other horse lineages would therefore be a very strong indication of local introgression in a breed (and a very high Y diversity in a domestic horse population would thus imply very strong introgression or even descendant from local wild horses). A 2004 study [4] showed that a large number of breeds have the same few Y chromosomes, including the Exmoor (and therefore ruling out that it descends from British wild horses or that it experienced much, not sex-biased local introgression), but this study unfortunately does not include the Konik. Therefore, it is not ruled out that the Konik has a unique Y chromosome diversity implicating a local wild horse influence that was larger than in other European horse breeds. That is not to say that I think that is the case, intuitively I actually don’t think so, but I am just saying that you cannot rule something out because it was not tested. For the Exmoor on the other hand it was tested and the result confutes that it is a surviving wild horse or strongly wild horse-influenced by rampant hybridization in the wild.

Have a look at the Konik population in the Oostvaardersplassen, where you see other colors and all kinds of builds, from lanky to stocky.

It is true that the Konik population at Oostvaardersplassen also contains individuals having a sorrel dun colour, individuals lacking dun (making them black), or with white marks. But there is no reason to assume that these make up a higher portion in the allele frequency than in usual Koniks (which is about 15% [5]). Assuming that the horses get more heterogeneous just because there are not selected anymore exposes either a lack of knowledge on population genetics, or would imply that these colours have a selective advantage over black dun – which is very unlikely in the case of Sorrel dun and white markings, which are domestic colours. Phenotypic black might be an exception, but they are still not a very common sight in the reserve. I actually appreciate the presence of black Koniks. The two domestic colours in the Konik population are the result of their mixed origin from the Panje horses (see here for more details on the Konik’s history), but also the Exmoor shows colours different from their standard colour, like “cream”[6] (possibly dun) and white markings [7], despite having been and being artificially selected on colour [6].
It is true that there is some variation in body conformation within the OVP population, but you never see tall, gracile and slender Koniks resembling riding horses there. Some of them even have a build as robust and stocky as stocky Exmoors (see here or here).

In other areas they select on color only which is totally ridiculous.

I agree that it is unwise for breeders that want their Koniks to look like European wild horses to select only on colour, but grazing projects usually also select them on hardiness and Koniks obviously do well in OVP and Polish and Latvian reserves [8]. The hardiness of Koniks is well-established ever since they originated from the Polish rural horses at the end of the 19th century. Those in grazing projects tend to be stockier than those in domestic use.
But it is true that many Koniks in domestic use and also some at grazing projects have a too light-built body and a rather long mane, I would appreciate if Koniks in general would be selected for a stocky body with a thick head and a short mane.

A Polish naturalist in 1721 AD is talking about bay-dun, mouse color (not necessary grey mind you. See local mouse called Apodemus Agrarius) and Isabella colored wild horse where he also states that he believes they are mixed.

The name of this naturalist the critic is referring to is Eugeniusz Rozdzynski. He certainly did not use the term “bay-dun” of modern equine coat colour terminology, but in fact he used the word “tan”. He was not the only one who reported about the wild horses living at the Polish game park at Zamosc, other people are f.e. Kajetan Kozmian, de Beauplan, Julius Czapski [1]. Their reports cover a time span of about 200 years. Regarding the colour of those horses, these later authors described them as homogenously blackish-brown or mouse-coloured [1]. The tan or isabelline colour described by Rozdzynski does not necessarily imply what modern terminology identifies as “Isabella”, it could have been bay dun or even black dun as well, historic horse colour terminology was not as strict as it is today (there are some confusions even today, f.e. the British often call dun “cream”, which is a different gene). “Mouse coloured” almost certainly mostly refers to black dun/grulla, because “mouse colour” is colloquially associated with a brownish-grayish colour, and even if people referred to the colour of Apodemus agrarius when using that term, an ashy brown colour with a prominent eel stripe does not rule out black dun at all, it actually fits very well. Black dun has many different shadings, also including such with a strong brownish tint. See here or here.
The other bodily features reported of those wild horses at Zamosc also definitely fit a wild horse phenotype (small and stocky, with a thick large head and a “beard”). Also the described behaviour matches that of what one would imagine a European wild horse to behave like, that is intractable and shy, defending harshly against predators [1].
One reason why people back those days and also some contemporary authors believe the horses at Zamosc were of domestic origin is that they had hoof problems. Specifically, their hooves grew faster than they got worn off, leading to an overgrowth of the hoof nail, causing some of the horses to have crippled legs. This is most likely related to the ground they were living on, it is a problem that all clawed animals have when they live on an unsuited ground, especially animals in captivity (and those at Zamosc were captive, more or less). This is also known in zoos that have Przewalski’s horses, sometimes it is necessary to cut their hooves annually [9]. Even some wild roe deer can have the same problem if they live on unsuited ground, I saw it for myself. Therefore, the hoof problems that these horses had do not imply that they were mixed or of feral origin [1].

Regarding dun; coloration has a clear function and non-dun, but bay coloration with light belly and light muzzle acts as countershading, so that predators have a hard time seeing the whole contours of a potential prey. Dun has not been proven for original wild horses anywhere. We simply don't know. The rest is speculation.

I don’t understand why the critic mentions countershading here, because it is present in both dun and non-dun horses if bay is the base colour anyway. Phenotypically black horses (therefore, in the lack of dun) totally lack countershading. Black dun horses, like the Konik, sometimes do show countershading to some extent though (see here or here). Maybe the critic should also note that animals predominantly living in more forested environments usually tend to have a solid colour while countershading is present in a lot of open land-dwelling species (wild equines with the exception of zebras, lamas, many antelope species etc.).
Now to dun: The critic shows that weird “it was not tested so we should assume it was absent” reasoning again. Having dun is the plesiomorphic (= underived, ancestral) condition in wild equines because all other species show it, so the assumption that European wild horses had it is the null hypothesis. Presumption that they lost dun would require an additional hypothesis and therefore is not the most parsimonious assumption. Historic references indicate that European wild horses were in fact dun-coloured (there are, as outlined above, good reasons to presume that most of these sources describe true wild horses with only little intermixture). So why assuming that they were non-dun in the first place? The only argument is that the lack of dun resulting in a darker colour might be more suited to a more or less forested environment than to the open field, where dun aids somatolysis (interestingly, the critic at the same time is a diehard advocate of the megaherbivore hypothesis and thinks Europe was more of a grassland savanna). I do think it is possible that there were non-dun European wild horses too, perhaps existing a habitat separation with the dun counterparts (like the first inhabiting forests and moors, the latter inhabiting grassland and steppes etc.) and indeed non-dun bay and black horses are well-camouflaged in forests; another possibility is that all four colour versions present at the same time in the same populations. But as long the dun factor isn’t tested for European wild horses, I prefer dun over non-dun because it is more parsimonious and supported by historic evidence.

So crossing Koniks with Exmoors seems ridiculous to me, because you will only **** up the original color setting, where Konik colored has been selected by humans and Exmoor colors not that much.

If “the original colour setting” is meant to imply that the European wild horse showed exactly the colour of the Exmoor, then this claim is very speculative: first of all, the lack of dun is not supported by historic data and genetically untested yet, secondly, many Exmoors have the dark brown colour instead of bay, which is not yet identified in wild horse populations – although I think it is possible. No, I’m not saying “absence of evidence is evidence of absence”, but the presence of the At allele for dark brown is, again, less parsimonious than its absence, and therefore less likely whereas in dun the opposite is the case. Furthermore, Exmoors lack the allele for black, and white marks still occur in that breed too. The critic is ignoring that black dun is very likely a quite common colour for European wild horses (as outlined above, but more details on that in a future post), and probably unaware of the fact that the Exmoor was selected for the bay/brown + countershading coat to a considerable extent, and that there were several domestic colours present among the ponies at the moor before selection and several bottleneck events [6].
A cross population of Konik x Exmoor would not ruin anything (it wouldn’t even diminish the number of the pure individuals of the breed), but rather result in a population having bay dun, black dun, bay/brown and black and a wild horse like body and skull shape plus the ability to defend themselves against predators and resistance against cold temperatures. Thus such a combination would in my opinion be a very good perspective for substituting the wild horse in reserves.

In the Oostvaardersplassen you actually see a trend towards more bay-dun colored horses, even after they tried to weed out every hint of bay from the Konik coloration.

First of all, I am curious on what he is basing this alleged trend on. There is no statistic data on coat colour changes in OVP over time, so it must be a personal guess. And if you know the various photos and videos of the herds in the reserve, it is obvious that the overwhelming majority of the horses is grulla coloured, and probably the portion of sorrel or black individuals is not higher than in other populations, they are just more apparent because they are not selected out as foals.
The critic exposes his lack of knowledge about horse colours, because there is not a single bay or bay dun pure Konik on this world, only the crosses with Przewalski’s horses or Fjord horses have this colour gene. Those “deviant” animals you see at OVP are sorrel dun or just sorrel (see here). So his claim that black dun has a lesser selective advantage than a “bay” colour (that does not exist in that population) is totally baseless.

Even better; the original founder animals for the Konik were bay colored and black horses. Nearly no grey animal was used, only selected for about 50 or 60 years.

Again a lack of knowledge or misuse of facts is exposed. It is true that the rural Panje horses from which the Konik descended displayed various colours, bay among them [1], but when the first studs for the first Panje horses called “Konik” were set up, mostly horses showing the colours that were considered to be wild horse-like (that is, black dun) were selected. At the starting phase, more colours were present than today, but black dun was the most common, and became (almost) fixed by selection subsequently – but the statement that only bay and black horses were used is simply wrong. And the mindset that black dun could be somehow “invented” by selective breeding only with bay and black horses seems rather awkward and as if genetics did not exist. Furthermore, it is misleading that the critic calls the colour of the Konik “grey” – grey according to horse colour terminology is caused by a totally different gene and is no wild type colour. The colour of the Konik on the other hand is black dun/grulla, and is not always optically grey but includes various shades as shown above.  

I am sure that this person will call me biased an arrogant for this again, but I give my reasons for the statements I make, provide literature references and I am always open to change my opinion, as long-term readers of my blog or forum discussions I am involved in will know. I am luckily not involved in any practical projects, so I can try to retain an open, un-biased mind because I have no urgent decisions to make and don’t have to see contradicting facts as a threat to a propagated agenda. The person above is involved in a number of projects and seemingly developed a quite pragmatic way to look at things and, interestingly, blames me to be the biased, arrogant and clueless one (his own words). However, I leave my readers to decide for themselves who deserves that characterization.

This defense of the Konik against that unfair critique is also applicable to all other primitive black dun horse breeds, such as the Hucule or some individuals of the Icelandinc pony as a useful and accurate wild horse substitute in Europe.


[1] Tadeusz Jezierski, Zbigniew Jaworski: Das Polnische Konik. 2008.
[2] Jansen et al.: Mitochondrial DNA and the origins of the domestic horse. 2002.
[3] Cieslak et al.: Origin and history of mitochondrial DNA lineages in domestic horses. 2011.
[4] Lindgren et al.: Limited number of patrilines in horse domestication. 2004.
[2] Bunzel-Drüke, Finck, Kämmer, Luick, Reisinger, Riecken, Riedl, Scharf & Zimball: Wilde Weiden: Praxisleitfaden für Ganzjahresbeweidung in Naturschutz und Landschaftsentwicklung. Arbeitsgemeinschaft Biologischer Umweltschutz
[6] Peter Green, South Wulley Farm: The free-living ponies within the Exmoor National park: their status, welfare and future. A report to the Exmoor Moorland landscape partnership. 2013.
[7] Baker, Sue, 2008: Exmoor Ponies: Survival of the Fittest – A natural history.
[9] Lee Boyd, Katherine A. Houpt: Przewalski’s horse: The history and Biology of an Endangered Species. 1994.

Friday, 17 January 2014

What makes breeding-back so fascinating?

I have always been fascinated with extinct animals, among dinosaurs especially those that have been exterminated by man. The thylacine was the hero of my early childhood. When I rediscovered this subject for me some years ago, and researched on all the exterminated megafauna around the globe, I inevitably concerned myself with the aurochs and heard of those “breeding-back” attempts. The idea fascinated me – selective breeding with living descendants in order to reconstruct the original wild type and to fill a gap in nature man created. I became almost obsessed with this idea, so that I always feel I have to explain myself why I engage myself with the horn shapes of some cows or the coat colour of some horses. It is true that the whole breeding-back issue is a very narrow niche, but to me it is connected to a lot of other fields.

Arguing about the need of reintroducing aurochs-like cattle and primitive horses into their former range partly depends on the so-called megaherbivore hypothesis which claims large herbivores through their interaction with the flora more diverse landscapes than a closed canopy forest or climax biotope would be. I am no hardliner of that thesis (some of them suggest that Europe would be an open savannah/grassland with huge herds of herbivores like the African Serengeti) but I think large herbivores do have an influence on the flora they live in, though certainly not a larger one than climate, soil parameters and terrain. There is a lot of literature on this subject to dig in, and it is exciting for me to try to compose a synthesis of that highly polarized discussion. The megaherbivore hypothesis itself is connected with the Overkill hypothesis that suggests that many members of the megafauna that died out towards the end of the last glacial period or shortly after it are victims of early human hunters. As the theory outlined above, this is another very controversial and emotionalized subject – I had been concerning myself with this issue years before I discovered breeding-back for me, but I won’t discuss it here any further because it is not really relevant for breeding-back.
I always want to emphasize that breeding-back is not simply something for fanciers that want to create the breed of their dreams and keep them on paddock is or in zoos, but that it is the long-term goal to create an authentic, ecologic substitute for the extinct archetypes they are bred to resemble. These animals even now have a practical use in conservation and demonstrate their importance in their former ecosystems; regardless of how large the impact of megaherbivores on landscapes really is, they were and are important for a lot of species in their native biotopes. Many grazing projects in Germany, the Netherlands and other countries underline that. 

© Jeroen Helmer
Reintroduction of large herbivores also provide empirical tests for hypotheses like the megaherbivore hypothesis or the cascade caused by the lack of predators which leads to a high population density of herbivores and therefore overgrazing, and what that means for the interaction between herbivores and the biodiversity of flora and fauna. Breeding-back is a tool of conservation because releasing their results into their native habitats is the reintroduction of a native species. That is why large reintroduction initiatives like Rewilding Europe have integrated primitive cattle and horses into their programmes. Europe’s megafauna without wild cattle and horses as much as Southern Africa without populations of the Plain’s zebra simply would not be complete, and breeding-back gives us the chance to fill that gap in the most satisfying way.

The breeding process itself requires to have some knowledge on the rules of inheritance and its relevance for breeding a certain desired phenotype. Inevitably you get into colour genetics. I also try to find out more about the difference of qualitative and quantitative features and how to select efficiently on the latter traits. Furthermore, population genetics are relevant for breeding-back. If you finally have a herd (or several herds) of animals with the desired features and start to expand and fragment the population the genetic composition of the new sub-populations gets changed, and some will have a higher portion of undesired recessive alleles or variations of any trait than others, leading to phenotypic more or less diverging herds (genetic drift). Genetics also are the tool to determinate whether there was local introgression from aurochs or wild horses into their respective domestic counterparts and how extensive that introgression was. It also explains why selective breeding just with related animals that do neither descend from the desired extinct animal nor contain all the genes in the extinct gene pool will only produce a superficial similarity. I’m an amateur on genetics but breeding-back certainly increased my knowledge a lot.

Breeding-back is closely connected with dedomestication. To me, dedomestication is exciting because it actually is evolution happening in front of our eyes – yet feral animals are sadly often considered ecological pests and invasive species by the majority of biologists (in many ecosystems they certainly are, though) and are under-studied. Of course the environment influences the condition of the body of the animals, but the changes observed in domestic animals becoming feral are certainly also genetic, and in many cases “new old traits” evolve, phenotypic as much as behavioural. The pleiotrophic effects involved in dedomestication surprisingly favours features not intuitively thought to be influenced by natural/sexual selection after only a few generations in the wild; this is exactly the reversal of what has been observed in the Farm fox experiment, which aims to study the genetic, phenotypic and behavioural changes caused by domestication. 

Feral hogs in Alabama
In fact, breeding-back also requires to research on the changes that wild animals go through while being domesticated to better understand how a non-dedomesticated breeding-back result will be different from the desired extinct wild type. Feral cattle and horses are prime models for filling gaps in our knowledge about the social behaviour and ecology of their wild types, so that there is a mutual gain of information: the desired archetype tells us what breeding-back has to focus on, and results of breeding-back living semi-feral or feral tell us some aspects about the extinct archetypes we otherwise could never know from the limited data we have.

Furthermore, breeding-back is also an exciting historical, archaeological and paleontological puzzle, because doing that work efficiently requires a profound knowledge on the extinct animals you are focusing on. What did it look like exactly? What do we know about its behaviour and its ecologic niche? What was its preferred habitat and its influence on other faunal and floral species? How large was its total range in a climatically comparable period? What were the causes of its extinction and the chronology of this process? In order to answer these questions information obtained from the sources mentioned above have to be put together properly, and you have to know where to look for and which sources are trustable and which are not. Many historic references are reproduced only from second or third hand, leading to confusions and Chinese whispers. The more information you have, the more complete the picture will get. You constantly have to reconsider the conclusions you have drawn previously, often leading to surprises, and pay attention that your view does not turn into a static thought system and biased view – this would be exactly the opposite of scientific thinking, and unfortunately sometimes is practised by exactly those who claim to have the only scientific approach.

Researching on other wild bovines brings you information about the aurochs and vice versa
The species that are the goal of breeding-back projects also can serve as models for their taxonomic group. The Aurochs, Quagga and Tarpan engage me to concern myself with bovine and equine evolution and phylogeny, and researching on related species is always very helpful as it might have some implication for reconstructing the biology of their extinct relatives. The basic anatomy, digestion systems etc. are roughly the same among perissodactyls and ruminants, so if you learn about the physiology of cattle and horses you learn about the physiology of a whole set of species. Furthermore, it is interesting to compare the social behaviour of the different species. For example, that of each of the wild bovines (buffaloes excluded) is about the same. What is the purpose of the exceptional sexual dichromatism displayed by some bovids, which is rather unusual among mammals? Why do horses and bison not show it? Therefore, researching on the biology of these very few species gives a clue on the biology of a lot of mammals in general.

Reconstructing an aurochs cow (Sassenberg specimen).  All rights reserved.
For me as a self-thought amateur animal artist, the obsession of drawing the one accurate and satisfying reconstruction of whatever species relevant for breeding-back is very helpful for improving my artistic skills. As I drew extinct dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles for many years, I was quite inexperienced when I started drawing exterminated mammals.  Not only did drawing loads of aurochs increase my knowledge on mammalian soft-tissue anatomy a lot, it also is incredibly refreshing to shift from dinosaurs to herbivorous mammals. But art is not only relevant for me. Qualitative, artistic reconstructions are important for breeding back because it shows what the breeding has to focus on, and how the animals have to look like to be satisfying. If you don’t know the appearance of the desired end result, you cannot select for it.

As you see, breeding-back motivates you to dig into a diverse set of subjects and always remains interesting and versatile. 

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Aurochs-like Italian cattle

I feel I have not appreciated the primitive Italian cattle breeds enough here yet. Two of them are well-known due to their presence in the Tauros Project, but others are not. The borderline that separates aurochs-like from not aurochs-like cattle is actually not existent because it is a continuum and depends on where you draw the line. F.e. I struggled with myself whether I should include Chianina here or not, but decided not to because of their very diluted coat – it’s a bit superficial but let’s be honest, colour is the first impression an animal gives. That is not to say that Chianina does not contribute useful features to breeding-back.


Agerolese is a cross of Italian cattle with Braunvieh, Jersey and Holstein. Although they have large udders and are small, they have a nice aurochs-like colour with black bulls, brownish or saddled cows, forwards-facing (but small) horns and a deep ribcage thanks to Holstein.


Cabannina is a small breed with small horns, but some individuals have an aurochs-like colour. I found nothing on its history, but I assume that they are a cross of Italian cattle with Alpine breeds like Braunvieh.


Maremmana is a quite variable breed, from almost aurochs-coloured herds (though, as steppe-type cattle, lacking red pigment) with thick (but upright) horns and quite longish skulls, legs and a well-developed hump to more heavy, short-legged cattle with short snouts, horns not quite as thick and a light gray colour, resembling the Hungarian Gray. Their size is variable as well; the largest size of this breed I heard of was 182 cm (it was personal communication, I have no reference at hand), smaller lineages are probably not much taller than 150 cm (bulls), the majority should be somewhere in-between. The most primitive herds of Maremmana sometimes are subsumed under the term “Maremmana primitiva”. Maremmana is used by Tauros Project to a large extent.


Pisano is a crossbreed of Chianina, Braunvieh and Tuscan cattle. It’s no large breed either,  bulls measure 150 cm at best. They look similar to Agerolese, but are more-long legged and I also like their colour more. Some Pisano, not surprisingly, look similar to Taurus cattle, especially those on the third photo.


Podolica is, like the name implies, another member of the Steppe-type cattle. It is not to be confused with Podolian Steppe cattle on the Balkan, which is much closer in phenotype to the Hungarian Gray. Like all Steppe-type cattle they are very resistant to cold and dry climates. They are similar to Maremmana, but have smaller horns. Some Podolica bulls grow completely black, except for the dorsal stripe and the muzzle ring. The modern Podolica is influenced by Chianina, Marchaginia, Maremmana and Braunvieh. It is long-legged, has a tight and muscular body and a well-pronounced hump. The head is not too short.


This breed is similar to Cabanina and probably has a similar history; their sexual dimorphism is very reduced, but still present. The horns are small and point upwards or outwards, udders are quite large. They are said to be very hardy.

Rossa siciliana

The Rossa Siciliana has a bit unusual colour, but it seems to be slender, has bigger horns than the other small (up to only 130 cm) breeds of this country. They seem to be adapted to the mountainous landscape and scarcity of food.

Sardo Bruna

Sardo Bruna is a cross of old Braunvieh and Sardinian landraces. It has the same colour as Braunvieh, but a more primitive body conformation and more aurochs-like proportions. The Sarda breed is similar but has a greater colour variability.
 For more details on Italian cattle go here

Italia is not as much of a hotspot of primitive cattle as Iberia is, but as you see, there are some rather nice breeds in this country. But in my opinion, there is yet another region in the world that surely houses a lot of aurochs-like cattle but is yet uncharted land for breeding-back: the near/middle East and North Africa. I guess that a lot of very primitive cattle can be found there, because they might have been largely un-influenced by more derived European breeds for a long time, and the very original type of animal husbandry forced them not to loose their hardiness and knowledge how to defend themselves against predators. It has been well-known for some decades that the Near East, especially Turkey, are home to small landraces of cattle with a perfect aurochs colour. And if you watched the news on the conflicts in the near east, you may have recognized the slender, aurochs-coloured draft cattle that sometimes were randomly shown on the camera. But of course, like all aurochs-like landraces, their primitiveness is under threat. Cattle in this region get increasingly crossed with derived and genetically modified breeds, especially Holstein, to increase their economic value. That means breeding-back has to act fast enough to collect some of these very primitive landraces before they disappear. Unfortunately all breeding-back projects focus on an exclusively European set of breeds, although near Eastern cattle might be more primitive in several respects, possible also genetically because they stayed near the centre of the domestication of the aurochs.