Monday, 7 April 2014

Aurochs remains at Vienna

My time is sparse these days, so only a short post for today. I didn’t notice it before, but Vienna does have some little treasures for hopeless aurochs nerds like me.

The NHMW (Naturhistorisches Museum Wien) has, among some scanty postcranial material, the a skull consisting only of the skull base, horns and frontals.

As you can see, the horns are rather long, wide-ranging and not curved that strongly as in other (male) aurochs specimen, therefore I assume it was a female. These horns are also more upright than those of many Iberia-based cows, they resemble those of some Hecks with good horns. I think this underlines that there was considerable variation regarding horn size, thickness, horn span, intensity of the curvature and, to a lesser degree, also orientation relative to the skull – although the basic curvature, the “primigenius spiral”, was always the same. This variability of the horns seems to be higher than in other large bovines to me, and I wonder why this is the case. One obvious explanation is regional variation over the wide range of the species, but most aurochs skulls are from Europe, therefore this explanation is not very conclusive. It is accepted in the literature that average the horn size of the aurochs tended to decrease during the Holocene, and perhaps this also goes for the horn width; or simply the aurochs’ horns were always that variable.

During an exhibition on recently extinct animals in the same museum I came across a nearly complete skull of an aurochs that probably was a male. I didn’t have my measuring tape with me so I compared it with my arm and it might be between 60-70 cm long. That skull was definitely larger than my Taurus bull skulls, which measure 44 and 49 cm in length, and it was pretty apparent to me that the snout was considerably longer and the orbital openings smaller – the typical difference between an aurochs skull and the paedomorphic skull of domestic cattle, although the Taurus skulls are more primitive than that of more-derived breeds and many un-crossed Heck cattle. If you have a look at the horns, you will see that they are curved more strongly than those of the putative cow above and point more forwards.  

The quality of the photos is not overwhelming because it was pretty dark and I took it with my phone.
Yet even more pleasant for me was the discovery that there are genuine aurochs horn sheaths in Vienna too. Two to be exact, in the KHMW (Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien). I did not take photos, but here is one from Wikimedia commons:

The sheaths are only slightly discoloured, giving them an orange tint. What surprised me was their small size. The distance between the outer base and the tips in both horns (I do not know whether they were from the same individual, but I do not think so) was surely not much larger than 40 cm – again I forgot to take my tape with me, so I had to use my arm again. The bony horn cores of course must have been even smaller (we could get an impression of how the horn core looked like if a silicone cast of the inside of the sheath would be made). The size of the horns was still large enough to not look disproportionally small by aurochs standards on a 150-160 cm animal, actually I got the impression they were about as large as the sheaths of one of my Taurus bull skulls, and the animal it is from looked like that life. But they were certainly smaller than the average of the horn cores that we know, which are usually several centuries to millennia older than sheaths from the medieval times. I would be curious on how large the other horn sheaths from the time were to see how drastic the horn size reduction towards the end of the aurochs’ existence was. This decrease in dimensions likely was linked to the absence of large feline hunters, trophy hunting (see elks), and habitat destruction caused by agriculture.


  1. Dear Daniel,
    Do you know whether there has been any recent development regarding dispensations from ear marking og cattle in the EU? I made a review some ten years ago, and at the time only two projects (the OVP and Veluwezoom, both in th Netherlands) had dispensations.
    My compliments for your wonderful cattle photos on Flickr.


    1. Thank you! I'm sorry, I have no idea on that ear marking issue.