Sunday, 29 June 2014

Taurus cattle at Disselmersch

When I did the post on my trip to the Lippeaue I presented a lot of photos of the herds at Klostermersch and Hellinghauser Mersch, but not that much on those at Disselmersch. Today I am going to post more of this herd, and also the background of the respective individuals.

The name of the breeding bull is “Larwin”, 37,5% Heck, 12,5% Chianina and 50% Sayaguesa. He is a son of Lombriz, a 50% Sayaguesa, 25% Chianina and 25% Heck bull – that bull was one of the largest, perhaps the largest, bulls born in the Lippeaue but unfortunately died young as he broke into the ice during winter. Mind that the percentages given above do not represent the actual genetic composition of the animal, but simply the maximum likelyhood. 
The older of the two young bulls is a son of the bull Lakritz, a 75% Heck and 25% Sayaguesa bull that looked quite nice. His mother is Lestes Barbarus, a cow of mainly Heck and 31,25% Sayaguesa that is still in the herd and is a son of Lakritz itself too. That bull also has a daughter with Ladilla, a Heck-Sayaguesa cow, in the herd. The rest of the cattle in this yet small group are offspring of Larwin.

As you see, this herd is composed of Sayaguesa-Heck crossbreeds, that’s why the cows are that dark, while the colour of the bulls is alright. I hope that when the herd gets extended in number that some Chianina-influenced individuals will be incorporated. As you see, the breeding bull has a nice back, but the legs could be longer and the head larger. The angle of the horns is absolutely alright and I like the shape of the skull in profile view. The dewlap is large due to Sayaguesa and Heck. The horns of the sub-adult bull are a bit too low. I really like the cow with the dark but reddish back (Lestes Barbarus), her aspect has something very appealing to me and her horns are good. I am not so impressed by the wholly black cow, her body is not good, she has a large udder and her horns aren’t that good either.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

New Quagga reconstruction, based on the mare at London Zoo

The only Quagga that was ever photographed was a mare at the London Zoo in 1870. I don't know the subsequent history of that specimen and whether its skeleton or skin was preserved. The fact that this photo down below is, among others that were shot at the same time, the only photo that shows a living and healthy Quagga inspired me to use this for a life restoration. 

I did it by painting it directly on the photograph using GIMP, to be as accurate as possible. I am really happy with the outcome, I think it might provide a lively picture of what this particular animal looked like in life. 
Another good basis for a life restoration is the specimen down below: 
It is the skin of the alleged last Quagga and is the least discoloured as far as I know. 
Most Quagga reconstructions only show single individuals, so I plan to do a coloured drawing of a whole herd in their natural environment as well, showing them doing what they normally did. 

Friday, 20 June 2014

Oldest Aurochs skull found: huge horns, phylogeographic implications

Martinez-Navarro et al. 2014 present a partially preserved cranium with complete horn cores of the oldest aurochs specimen known hitherto, dated back ~700.000 years and found in Tunisia. Not only is this a quite large specimen (keep in mind that geologically young aurochs tended to be larger than most Holocene anyway) but its horn cores are huge, probably the largest known yet. They measure 112,0-111,5 cm in outer length and lateral span about 150 cm (for comparison, the horns of the Wörth bull Aretto, which are already large horned cattle, spanned about 100 cm). Since the keratinous sheath adds 25-10% length to the horn, the horns of this specimen must have been around 130 cm long, which is very impressing. Considering its age, I am not sure if it should be classified as B. p. africanus or simply as basal member of the species before any subspeciation took place.
The recently discovered oldest aurochs skull known to date
A common conception was that the clade Bos is of (Eur-)Asian origin because a number of extinct possible predecessor genera are located there (f.e. Leptobos) and all living members of the clade live there, and further it was suggested that the Aurochs itself was of Indian origin because the earliest previously known remains are from India. An alternate hypothesis that is increasingly well supported is that Bos originated in Africa since its cranial anatomy is more derived than that of Bison and Leptobos and shares more characteristics with the late Pliocene-early Pleistocene Pelorovis (no, not “Pelorovisantiquus which actually should be classified as Syncerus antiquus, but P. olduvaiensis and P./Bos turkanensis) [1]. And in fact, the oldest true Bos members, B. turkanensis (which can be interpreted as an intermediate form between Pelorovis and Bos, and is mutually assigned to both taxa) and the very long horned B. buiaensis, were inhabitants of North-eastern Africa.

Bos buiaensis
Pelorovis olduvaiensis

The fact that this oldest aurochs specimen known up to date yet is from North Africa does not necessarily imply the species evolved there. But I do see a certain continuity between P. olduvaiensis and this basal aurochs specimen: 1) The angle between the horns and the snout is much sharper than in many later European aurochs specimen, what is “suspicious” considering that this specimen is at the root of the species and that those of Pelorovis are oriented almost parallel to the snout. 2) The horns of Pleistocene aurochs are more dorsoventrally compressed than in Holocene aurochs/cattle, and even more so in this specimen (~14 cm vs. ~9,3 cm in diameter). Those of Pelorovis are very dorsoventrally compressed. 3) The skull of this definitely male specimen is comparably narrow, and the skull of Pelorovis is also very narrow.
So the postulated African origin of Bos and Bos primigenius seems plausible to me as well. Bos buiaensis has been suggested as the ancestor of the aurochs, but the fact that its horns are considerably more outwards-ranging than in both Pelorovis and B. primigenius makes that unparsimonious. My personal opinion is that it perhaps might be a sister species and both might have descended from B. turkanensis. Another interesting question is whether the common ancestor of the Kouprey-Banteng-Gaur clade was either B. turkanensis, another species or even basal aurochs (although I think the aurochs might be too young to be a probable ancestor of this clade). So the aurochs must have spread from the north of Africa to the Near East to all over Eurasia. Interestingly, the Indian aurochs B. p. namadicus is reported having longer and more wide-ranging horns than other aurochs populations. Perhaps this indicates hybridization with B. acutifrons, an Asian species that was similarly long-horned as B. buiaensis, which died out shortly after the aurochs arrived in that region. Genetics do indicate that a lot of hybridization within Bos and also with Bison took place – Yaks, now recognized to be members of the Bison clade [2], were introgressed by Bos; Gaurs and Koupreys introgressed the Banteng [1], and the Wisent probably is a hybrid of Bos and Bison [2].
The subject gets even more interesting (and more speculative) when you look at the pinned V-shaped dorsal edge of the frontal bone between the horns of some Zebus, which pulls the horns closely together and upwards, giving them an antelope-like appearance. You will see that P. olduvaiensis has the same condition. Could that be caused by the same genetic background inherited by this species that was reactivated by the altering of the genome through domestication? This is only a wild speculation of mine.

Combining all that, I did a little cladogram of my idea on the phylogeny of Bos – without having done a phylogenetic analysis, but based on the molecular and morphologic data cited and outlined here and the rough guess that the Kouprey is the sister species of Gaur + Banteng. Do not take this phylogeny for granted.

P. olduvaiensis àB. turkanensis + --- + -- †B. buiaensis
                                                             `        `
                                                                `        ` --- † B. acutifrons
                                                                      `--+ --- B. primigenius
                                                                                `--+ --- † B. sauveli
                                                                                       `--+ --- B. javanicus
                                                                                                ` --- B. gaurus

I have to say I can’t wait to illustrate a life restoration of B. buiaensis, B. p. africanus and B. p. namadicus and to write a post on them and their paleoenvironment.

I wondered why the early members of Bos had these large horns. Their size is too extreme to serve for defence only, but could be the result of sexual selection for display like in other bovids like caprines [3], although the horns of the early aurochs surely were formidable weapons too. Thermoregulation might be another explanation, since horn cores are highly vascularized bones and might serve as a tool to get rid of excessive heat. And no, I do not think that the large horns of early African aurochs and Watussi cattle are more than a coincident unless there are some conclusive hints for it. The fact that early Bos had more forwards-pointing horns than later ones, including North African Aurochs, might indicate that Iberian landraces had some africanus introgression considering that they mostly come from Africa (more on that later), but I do not think that because taurine cattle probably arrived in NA after the African aurochs died out.


[1] Martínez-Navarro, B., Karoui-Yaakoub., N., Oms, O. et al., "The early Middle Pleistocene archeopaleontological site of Wadi Sarrat (Tunisia) and the earliest record of Bos primigenius", Quaternary Science Reviews (2014).
[2] Maternal and Paternal Lineages in Cross-Breeding Bovine Species. Has Wisent a Hybrid Origin? Edward L. C. Verkaar,* Isaa ̈c J. Nijman,* Maurice Beeke,* Eline Hanekamp,* and Johannes A. Lenstra 
[3] Hans-Peter Uerpmann: Der Rückzucht-Auerochse und sein ausgestorbenes Vorbild.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Tauros Project promo video

Thanks to a follower of my blog, I came across a promo video for the Tauros cattle at Keent, Netherlands, which I already knew from a presentation by Ronald Goderi. I didn't know it was on youtube before, so I post it here. 

As it is a promo video, it is edited in a way I simply can only dislike - inserted vocalizations, that horrible music - but nevermind. This is the best glimpse at the Tauros cattle I ever saw and I am very happy about what I see. Please don't ask me about the identity of all the individuals in the video, I don't want to speculate too much, but here's a list of animals I am pretty sure of: 

Beginning: Maronesa cow 
0:05 Maremmana-Pajuna cross (Manolo Uno), Highland cross cow (the light one) 
0:15-0:23 Maremmana, Limia and perhaps Pajuna cows
0:24-0:33 Sayaguesa-Tudanca cows, Limia bull plus their offspring
0:34-1:01 Limia bulls fighting, plus young perhaps Maronesa bull
1:07 Sayaguesa cow
1:08 Maremmana and Pajuna bulls fighting 
1:19 Pajuna bull humping a Limia cow 

I like some of the individuals very much. Especially those fighting Limia bulls look very cool and aurochs-like, about as good as Taurus bulls. The Sayaguesa and Sayaguesa x Limia cows are very nice too; the latter one have offspring already. I wonder what they look like now. I am not very fond of the Maremmana. Both the cows and the bull look comparably massive, and their horns are not as long and thick as they should be to increase the horn length of the other breeds. Plus, they add that greyish colour and upright horns, features that are very annoying in Heck cattle and will be in Tauros cattle too. And apparently they are not that really large breed that I believed them to be. Personally, I would exchange those Maremmana for some Watussi and Chianina cows (ok, Chianina would add dilution modifiers too, but they would be the only really large breed in that assemble). 

What I appreciate very much is that the bulls obviously have to fight for their mating rights, which is something I always propagate for breeding back-projects. It's an element of natural selection parallel the selective breeding. 

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Missed chances and bad luck in the history of Heck cattle

The history of Heck cattle mainly is a history of bad luck from a breeding-back point of view – actually bad luck is not exactly the right word for it, because it is mainly the result of people’s actions and not exclusively coincidences. This post is not meant to attack these people, not at all, I just want to unemotionally describe what I think went wrong in the creation of modern Heck cattle as an aurochs look-alike and how it might have been made better.

The Heck brothers’ project

The methodology of the Heck brothers was reviewed by Cis van Vuure in his 2005 book (Retracing the aurochs, Pensoft publishers, 2005) already (I don’t agree with him on every aspect). However, I am going to list the main aspects of their project that went wrong and resulted in Heck cattle becoming as we know it.

1. Sloppy research on the aurochs
2. Insufficient choice of breeds
3. Lack of clear selection criteria and negligence of certain traits
4.The crossbreeding and genealogy of their cattle were not documented
5. Wrong assumptions on animal breeding

Except number 2 (the possibilities to track down primitive cattle back this time were much more difficult than today, especially when not knowing where to look for), all those errors are consequences of choices and actions of the Heck brothers, but this is not meant as critique. For some reason they used imprecise rock carvings and paintings as model for the aurochs’ horns instead of the numerous well-preserved skulls, they did not take care of the proportions, hump and skull shape visible on complete skeletons, nor did they notice the different body shape of domestic and wild cattle. The choice of breeds was insufficient because it lacked certain aurochs features, such as body size (which was simply neglected), horn size/shape, hump and skull shape. Would they have used Chianina, Watussi and an useful Iberian breed (which were known to the Heck brothers back this time) instead of all those derived breeds they included (f.e. blackpied cattle), the outcome would have been much more aurochs-like right from the beginning. And no, I am not neglecting hardiness here, because all of these cattle are healthy landraces and therefore the outcome would have been hardy anyway. The Heck’s choice of breeds also included a breeds that added nothing but undesired traits, such as Angeln or Black-pied lowland cattle (fat body, white spots, small horns). Remember that I am referring to those used by Heinz Heck exclusively, because the lost Berlin lineage is not relevant for modern Heck cattle. The Heck brothers neglected features such as body size, partly because they thought that by simply crossing primitive breeds more ancient features would emerge because of reuniting invisible traits, which obviously was not the case and is not supported by modern genetics (again, the Hecks are not necessarily to blame for that).
The Heck brothers did not keep track of the crosses they executed, at least not sufficiently and stopped totally during the 1930s. It would have been better if they set up a breeding book right from the beginning, documenting which animal descends from what other animal – in this case we would know the exact set of breeds used and complete genealogy of all living Heck cattle today. A major mistake was, apart from the sloppy research, not to set up a list of clear selection criteria. Their selective breeding and that of the subsequent owners of Heck cattle was and is only very vague and arbitrary. For example, they permitted animals with a greyish tone in their coat and lyre-like horns, although there is absolutely no hint that the aurochs possessed such traits. The degree of variability in the aurochs (and basically all wild animals) was and is greatly exaggerated, leading to the extremely heterogeneous breed we know today (I’m not saying an aurochs look-alike has to be 100% homogeneous).


Another case of bad luck was that the Berlin lineage was lost during WWII, because Lutz Heck used a slightly better set of breeds that was mainly based on Corsican, Lidia and Camargue and they were also released in a number of wild paddocks.
The surviving Heck cattle (~40 individuals) were spread among a number of German zoos and soon increased in quantity. However, Reinhard Dathe, a former manager of the Zoo at Eastern Berlin noted in 1980 that after the Second world war a number of zoos removed their cattle, leading to a decrease of quantity and quality of the stock (whatever he considered quality). What would have been needed at this stage to prevent phenotypic chaos are the aforementioned clear selection criteria, but also a coordinated breeding strategy that ensures that the respective herds get selected for one goal and also exchange individuals to achieve and maintain the desirable phenotype. But that didn’t happen, because most zoos that kept Heck cattle did not intend to optically reconstruct the aurochs or neither aware that these cattle aren’t yet, or simply thought they look ancient enough and that they are for display exclusively anyway. Again, this is not meant as critique. It is understandable that zoos did not care greatly about Heck cattle, because it is obvious that a crossbreed of domestic cattle cannot revive its wild type. Nevertheless, what happened was chaos; population increase, genetic drift every time new herds were formed and only loose selection resulted in herds that either showed more resemblance to one or two founding breeds (f.e. got very Steppe cattle-like) or simply all possible combinations of the features donated by the founding breeds, such as small and extremely shortlegged and massive Hecks that look like short-haired Highlands with aurochs colour, very short-or large-horned individuals, horn shapes of all kinds, colours of all kinds, proportions of all kinds, absent to even very prominent sexual dimorphism. Only few breeders, such as the Zoo Hellabrunn or the Wildgehege Neandertal created herds with a wholly aurochs-like coat colour and acceptable horns. The use of a Heck x Watussi cross cow in the Neandertal was a very wise decision to achieve the latter trait.

What could have been achieved

Considering that Heck cattle has a bulk of non-aurochs-like features and but also a number of unevenly distributed aurochs-like features in their gene pool, it is fun to speculate what is the maximum degree of similarity of the aurochs that could have been achieved with the breeds Heinz Heck worked with. So let’s assume Heck cattle was bred carefully and coordinated, and always with the objective of creating an accurate optic reconstruction of the aurochs since 1945 – without adding other breeds, so no Watussi and no Taurus cattle. How much resemblance would be possible with Heinz Heck’s cattle? Here’s a list of features that were present in the original population:

  • Aurochs-like colour with well-marked sexual dichromatism (Corsicana, Murnau-Werdenfelser)
  • More or less large but not all too thick horns (Hungarian Steppe, Highland)
  • Almost accurate horn curvature and a shallow hump (Corsicana, partly Highland)
  • Long legs, withers height/trunk length ratio 1:1 (Steppe cattle)
  • Small udder (Steppe cattle)
  • Body size probably 150 cm in bulls and 140 cm in cows

The drawing down below illustrates how I imagine a combination of these features with all the undesired traits bred out might have had looked like:
The difference between this, what Heck cattle should have been, and what most Heck cattle today look like is quite amazing, isn’t it? And if you consider that Taurus cattle and the large-horned Hecks descending from that half-Watussi cow add large and thick and more forwards-facing horns, long snouts, long legs, larger body size and a more athletic body with a hump, a complete optic aurochs that also is hardy and healthy with a broad genetic basis is achievable.

It's finally getting better

When grazing projects started, the number of Heck cattle herds increased significantly once again. I guess that mostly the more primitive-looking Heck cattle were chosen for these projects and often were and are bred for more aurochs-like looks, but only casually as the primary target is landscape conservation. Not to forget, there is also a number of private breeders that created some really beautiful and aurochs-like herds, such as Walter Frisch. Some zoos and game parks in which selective breeding with Heck cattle was not considered that important seemingly served as islands for the survival of the particularly “ugly” Heck cattle from decades ago (see f.e. the Zoo Neumünster or Wildpark Frankfurt/Oder), some of them having a rather odd aspect (see here and here). But interestingly, occasionally they possess features from their founding breeds that the other, more derived lineages apparently lost. Modern Heck cattle in general seemingly lost some features of their founding breeds, not only undesired ones, such as the snout and horn shape of Corsican bulls when I look at old photographs.

Cis van Vuure concluded in his book that after 80 years of breeding Heck cattle, the situation regarding an optic revival of the aurochs is probably as before; and i.e. I agree with that statement. But the quality of Heck cattle as an aurochs look-alike did not remain status quo since 1945. For example, the Wildgehege Neandertal was one of the most important breeding locations for Heck cattle and also executed effective selection in regards to coat colour and horns (and they also were the first to document the pedigree of their cattle, thanks to that we know that they used that half-Watussi cow). Because of their quality, cattle from this herd were used by a lot of other herds what resulted in a certain increase of authenticity of the breed as a whole. However, the resemblance to the aurochs was and is still very meagre in the overwhelming majority of this breed.
But in recent years, the quality of Heck cattle on a number of regions increased significantly. One reason might be that the interest in the aurochs and breeding back grew as the value of robust cattle for conservation was recognized and they were put out onto beautiful, natural pastures. While some grazing projects consider the level of aurochs-likeness sufficient for their purposes, others do select to a certain degree. But it was mainly the excellent work of some private breeders like Walter Frisch who produced very valuable animals (in this case great horns), and the creation of Taurus cattle (which also emphasized the differences between usual Hecks and the aurochs) through which the whole Heck population is getting more aurochs-like since the good animals are increasingly popular among breeders because of their obviously more authentic looks. Many southern-German herds have individuals with large horns today, f.e. the one at the Nationalpark Bayerischer Wald or this Bavarian herd, but also grazing projects in the Spreeaue, Sachsen and others (The bull from Spreeaue in the link probably is a son of Walter Frisch's bull Ari, which covered or still covers this herd). The emergence of Taurus cattle initiated by the ABU in 1997 was another crucial step. Sayaguesa, Chianina and Lidia added size, long-leggedness, forwards-facing horns and a more slender body that were lacking in the Heck gene pool until then.
Mind that Heck cattle per se is not a breeding-back attempt anymore, and all breeders are free to breed their cattle how they want, so this process is progressing only slowly.

It would be really cool if a project that executes rigorous selective breeding with Heck cattle would come into existence. Imagine someone would by 100+ Hecks (Taurus included) from the best herds (f.e. Lippeaue, Wörth, Neandertal, Schmidtenhöhe, Slikken van Flakee, and if legally possible OVP) and keeps them on a large, semi-natural area. They would breed for them selves, the bulls fight for the breeding rights, so that a certain degree of natural selection would be given, but the undesired individuals would still be selected out. I think such a project would produce really good animals and finally the full potential of Heck cattle for aurochs “rebreeding” would be seized.