Saturday, 28 February 2015

First fifth-generation Rau zebra

A little bit delayed news. It was born on 10th of december 2013. See here.
It has a clear brownish tint, but I am not sure if one could say that it is significantly more prominent than in non-selected plains zebras. What is interesting is that the stripes seem to fuse to a dark brown colour on the upper arms in this individual; I have noticed that in several other Rau zebras as well. 
I think I'm going to draw another prediction of how Rau zebras might look like by 2025, additionally to my first one.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Aurochs bull by Joschua Knüppe

There really are not many qualitative, anatomically correct aurochs reconstructions. Most artists make typical mistakes or just do not research properly. For example, there are artworks for which their creators certainly didn't care much on what the horns actually looked like, or which proportions the animal had. There are numerous very good illustration of other extinct bovines, such as extinct bison, Pelorovis, Leptobos and so on. But not even artists like Mauricio Anton, one of the greatest artists for extinct mammals of our time, seem to get the aurochs right. I think the reason for that might be that there are living models for the other taxa (living bison and buffaloes), while domestic cattle are used for the aurochs. Using cattle as models is sensible of course, I do it all the time, but it is a bad mistake to use their body shape for the aurochs. That is a typical pitfall for many artists. Except it is a breed that either lives in the wild or has a body conformation that resembles that of wild bovines anyway (f.e. Lidia). 

As there are only few artists that do qualitative aurochs ilustrations, I asked Joschua Knüppe to draw an aurochs for me. He is a student at te Kunstakademie Münster and a brilliant paleoartist (a paleoartist is, as you probably guessed, someone how illustrates paleontological themes; I consider myself an amateur paleoartist). Go to his deviantart page and have a look at his gallery:
Joschua drew an aurochs bull for me after I sent him some photos of aurochs material, life restorations and aurochs-like cattle. I like the result very much: 
Copyright by Joschua Knüppe. Used with permission.
It has all the important aurochs features: the tight, athletic body with a hum, a straight skull and the right colour. The eel stripe is not visible, what may be partly due to the perspective but I consider it possible that some aurochs bulls lacked the dorsal stripe overall anyway. The gentleman next to the aurochs is Ernst Stromer von Reichenbach, an important historic German paleontologist.

Thank you very much!

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Some size comparisons

It is interesting how easy we might fail when estimating the size of an animal without appropriate metric reference objects. I experienced it myself when I stroke the Heck bull at the Tierpark Haag and thought that one might be around 150cm tall at the shoulders. I measured him and he turned out to be mere 140cm, the typical size for Heck bulls. It gets even more difficult when we encounter the animal moving in the field, and often they get overestimated. That’s why sometimes crocodiles or komodo dragons are believed to have astounding lengths like eight or six metres, but once shot and measured they turn out to be within the normal size range of their species. But I was surprised that even guessing the size of an animal next to a person on a photo can be rather difficult. I realized that when had a look at this photo of a Heck bull standing next to a man (!/image/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/galerie_940q/image.jpg). The bull looks large and massive, and I estimated it might be well over 145 cm at the shoulders. Then I did calculations assuming that the man next to the bull is 175 and 180cm tall, respectively. And the result was that this bull is 135 cm tall at best.

 I overlaid Wisent and Aurochs at the exact same shoulder height:

The aurochs seems to be the slightly larger animal, which is not surprising since the Wisent is has a short and high body. The largest aurochs bulls therefore were likely heavier than the largest Wisent bulls.

The last one is a comparison of aurochs of three different sizes: 180 cm, 170 cm and 160 cm.

Extinct species/subspecies that could be revived through cloning

Cloning probably is the only possible way to revive an extinct species or subspecies. But people inevitably associate it with Jurassic Park, Dolly, and clueless priests that delight us with their dispensable comments. Also, people always raise the following questions:

Can we do it? (I am not a geneticist, but see below).

Should we do it, what good is in it? I hate this question. It is exactly that kind of ugly pragmatism that is the death of science. Why studying anything that doesn’t bring mankind any immediate advantages? We research for knowledge’s sake. Apart from that, it can have a practical good since most species exterminated by man were part of modern ecosystems. People often argue that cloning a single individual would be pointless because you cannot recover a whole species from it and the animal would suffer from its aloneness. First of all, what if we find the absolutely last moa in the NZ forests? Would we preserve and study it, or would be roast and eat it? A cloned woolly mammoth would be the only member of its species just in the same way. Apart from that, many species that can be socialized with animals of other species if there are no conspecifics in captivity, such as African and Asian elephants (why not mammoths?), and some of the cloning candidates might have been solitary anyway (the Thylacine, for example).

Is it ethically correct? Yes it is. At first, why should it be a problem to restore something that previously has been destroyed by man? And even if it is a species that did not die off because of us, I still see no problem. “Playing evolution?” We always did, we always do, we are a part of evolution. And nobody is planning to release an alien extinct species into an ecosystem where it does not belong. Of course there are people who have ethical problems with cloning in general, but animals get cloned every day for non-scientific reasons, so annoy the people who do that instead those who do it for scientific reasons.

Is it dangerous? This is the most ridiculous question. What do those people think, that Woolly mammoth get cloned, released somewhere without a reason, thrive and reproduce like rats and destroy whole ecosystems? And no, cloning extinct animals does not recreate ancient pathogens that cause ecologic and humanitarian catastrophes and so on. And if you think cloning extinct animals is dangerous because the animals themselves are dangerous, stop watching JP and grow a brain.   

The “argument” that perplexes me the most is why we should try and invest in it if we do not know if it is going to work in the end. What kind of whacked moral is that? If we would only try of which we know it is going to work we would still live in the Palaeolithic. It is the task of science to find out if something is going to work or not.

Is it possible at all?

I am not a geneticist, but everybody will agree that it won’t be easy. The first challenge is to recover enough intact nuclear DNA. Then, as far as I understand, a complete set of functional chromosomes has to be created, because merely a known base sequence is not sufficient to clone an animal. And this step is not possible yet, but scientists are working on it. After that, the genetic material has to be implanted into a blastocyst and a suitable surrogate has to be found that is compatible in immunological, epistatic(?) and morphological way. And not to forget, you need both types of gonosomes. Considering all that, the number of species having a chance of revival gets drastically reduced. A clone only shares the nuclear genome with its original while it has the mitochondria of its surrogate. However, mitochondria only have a few number of genes and most of them are for the organelle itself, so this should have virtually no impact. I do not know how much the influence of epigenetics would be, but probably not that large either (correct me if I’m wrong).

And there is a difference between cloning one or a few individuals and the recovery of a viable population. In most cases, probably only a few individuals or perhaps only one could be cloned, which is of course not quite a good basis. But some of those species have close and similar relatives that can contribute additional genetic material. Pedigree fanatics would claim that the result would not be a “pure” population anymore, but the gene pool of species always changes. Even if the number of cloned individuals is large enough for a whole population, its gene pool would still differ from those the individuals originally are from due to genetic drift, which is natural and omnipresent. Apart from that, many species experience hybridization in the wild anyway. Note that I am not suggesting lez a faire hybridization, but careful absorptive breeding. That is, for example, supplement the group of cloned Quaggas with some Plains zebras, but only mares (unless no Y chromosome of the species in question has been recovered; or the female Z chromosome in the case of birds). Remove the hybrid stallions in the first generations. Later on, when the population is allowed to breed freely, remove those individuals that might show some features of the “diversity donors”, be it optic, behavioural or whatever.

What kind of sources?

There are numerous sources of organic material that can be used to gain genetic material. Leukocytes, hair, feathers, most types of soft tissue and even bone. It is said that DNA has a maximum life span of 500.000 years, so the number of species is limited. Mummified specimens can contain DNA, so do well-preserved bones, which is what we find at good permafrost and other late Pleistocene and early Holocene sites. Another source are specimen preserved in alcohol. It has been tried to gain functional DNA from conserved Thylacine embryos. Also preserved skins may contain DNA, as it has been successfully extracted from Thylacine skins in 2009. Imagine of how many extinct species DNA might still be present because there are preserved skins!

The fact that the whole genome of an aurochs based on an early Holocene skeletal remain opens an interesting possibility: genetic material of far more late Pleistocene and early Holocene species could be recovered. Perhaps a few Wisent individuals could be completely resolved and cloned, which would be a great leap towards overcoming the inbreeding depression of this bovine. As if this wouldn’t be awesome enough, perhaps there is enough preserved DNA of late Pleistocene species of which we have numerous, well-preserved skeletal remains to clone a number of them – say hello to woolly rhinos, direwolves, Mammuthus columbi, perhaps even sabre-tooths. Ground sloths probably not, because there are no suitable surrogates. But this is just imaginary anyway (yet).

The species

What I do now is to present a list of species that are candidates for a revival through cloning. Some of them are more likely than others, and some of them have already been proposed, others not.

Alphabetical order:


In 2013 it has been reported that the whole genome of an early Holocene bull aurochs has been resolved thanks to well-preserved bone remains. Perhaps it is possible also to resolve the complete genome of more individuals. If it is possible to recover the nDNA of five different aurochs from different locations and ages, it might be a more diverse pool than that of the wisent already. And, not to forget, there are many suitable breeds to add genetic diversity with minor influence on appearance and nil in all the other respects. There is an enigmatic Polish group called PFOT that allegedly wants to genetically reconstruct the aurochs.


Killed off in 1799 or 1800, only four mounted skins and few bone and horn material left. Therefore there is not much material to go on, but surrogates would be no problem. This species has not been suggested for cloning yet.


No skins, skeletal material suboptimal. There is only one specimen with remaining soft tissue, the Oxford specimen, which consists of a foot and head rescued from destruction. DNA was taken from the leg. I am an optimist and hope that it might be possible to obtain a complete genome. But probably there is no suitable surrogate, as all living pigeons are way too small and all birds of suitable size are only very distantly related to the dodo. The dodo as a candidate is just a rampant idea of mine.

Gastric brooding frog

In 2013, a living embryo of this amphibian was created with somatic nuclear cell transfer. The embryo failed to turn into a tadpole, but scientists are confident to create living gastric brooding frogs, which disappeared in the late 1980s. So achieving a single member of this species is very likely about to come, but I don’t know if there is enough material for a whole bunch of individuals.

Great auk

There are about 80 (!) skins of the Great auk, so the chance to get enough material for several individuals or at least one, is high in my opinion. Hopefully, the razorbill, the closest living relative of the Great auk, is a suitable surrogate. If someone seriously tries and enough DNA is recovered, I do really see a good chance for not only one but a breeding group of great auks to be created. This species has not been suggested as a cloning candidate yet.


It is not sure whether or not the Kouprey is extinct or not. No individual was spotted after the 1980s, but on the other hand nobody has made a serious attempt to find one. For this article, let’s assume they are extinct. I don’t know the exact number, but there are a few skins, plus numerous trophies, mostly skulls with horn sheaths. Surrogates would be no problem (domestic cattle), and there would be species that could serve as “diversity donors” (Banteng and Gaur). The Kouprey has not been suggested either, perhaps people should try to find remaining living ones first. Cloning “additional” Koupreys would help to increase the genetic diversity of this species if it still exists, as I suggested for the wisent.

Passenger pigeon

There are a lot of stuffed passenger pigeons and they would have suitable surrogates, so the chance to clone a few individuals is not bad. Problems for breeding are that they stopped breeding after their population dropped below a certain number. But: theoretically, if a large number of clones is produced they might indeed breed if the number is large enough. The pigeons wouldn’t know that some of them are clones of one and the same animal. However, that would be pretty effortful I think.

I don’t know if there are people that consider truly cloning a passenger pigeon, but there is that project that tries to identify single genes responsible for typical phenotypic traits of this species and wants to insert them in living pigeons. Not sure what to think of that.

Pyrenean ibex

The Pyrenean ibex, also called Bucardo, in fact had been cloned already and was the first cloning attempt of an extinct animal. Over 200 embryos were produced, but eventually only one was born alive. For about seven minutes, the bucardo was alive again, but died afterwards because of a defect of the lungs. This is a general problem of cloning with adult somatic cells, and not because it was a transspecies clone. One female is certainly not enough for a population, but perhaps there are enough skins and skeletons to recover a complete set of DNA from a number of individuals.


There are more than twenty Quagga skins on display, all of which could house nuclear DNA. Furthermore there are two mounted skeletons on display and I assume that surely large quantity of material is in collections, maybe also as trophies. If one or a number of Quagga can be cloned, the herd could be supplemented with plains zebras, preferably from the Quagga Project, to gain more genetic diversity. Unfortunately the quagga was not considered for cloning yet, as far as I know.  


This is, next to the Woolly mammoth, possibly the most famous candidate for cloning. A project started in 2000 using an embryo conserved in alcohol was stopped in 2005 because the DNA turned out to be too damaged. 2008 a gene involved in cartilage formation extracted from a Thylacine was inserted into a transgene mouse and did its function perfectly. The Thylacine Sequencing Project currently tries to resolve the complete genome of the Tasmanian tiger. They themselves do not believe in a resurrection of the Thylacine in the near future. One of the problems is the lack of a closely related surrogate (the Tasmanian devil has been suggested previously).

Upland moa

A moa is an “optimistic” idea of mine. There are numerous well-preserved skeletons of all moa species, but I choose the Upland moa because there is one mummified specimen of it and it is probably not too large to be carried out by an Ostrich or Emu. The challenge is to recover enough genetic material and if living ratites can serve as surrogates at all, because they are only distantly related. Nobody considered cloning a moa yet, and I don’t know if there are even efforts to fully resolve the genome of one of the 12 species.

Western wild horse

This is “just an idea” as well. If it was possible to reconstruct the full genome of an aurochs based on bone material from the early Holocene of Europe, it might be possible with remains from European wild horses as well. Skeletal material of domestic and wild horses are difficult to distinguish, but genetics will show. If indeed a few wild Equus ferus ferus can be cloned, and if the diversity is not large enough for a viable population, they could be supplemented with primitive horse breeds, depending on which resembles them closest.

Woolly Mammoth

Three ways have been proposed to resurrect the Woolly Mammoth. The first is classical cloning, for which a complete genome is needed. As far as I know, 70% of the nuclear genome of the Woolly Mammoth are resolved yet, but scientists are working on it. The second one is to recover intact sperm cells and inseminate an Asiatic elephant cow, and to breed an almost fullblood Mammoth by absorptive breeding. However, it sounds really implausible to me that such well-preserved sperm cells can be found in a frozen carcass that is at least 10.000 years old. The third method is to take the chromosome set of a living elephant and to track down the loci that differ in the two species, and to exchange the elephant alleles with the mammoth alleles to create a set of chromosomes that can be used for cloning. The mammoth DNA would have be known completely, otherwise the result would, technically, be a hybrid, as far as I understand.

Steppe bison

There are hundreds of well-preserved Steppe bison remains in turf and permafrost, some of them mummified. So there might be the chance to acquire full genome, perhaps of more than one individual. Surrogates are no problem – wisent and American bison. Both species would also be prime “diversity donors” if there is not enough diversity for a whole population.

Coelodonta might be another candidate for recovering a full genome from these kind of sources.

Nobody suggested these species for cloning yet, and I don’t know if there are efforts for resolving their full nuclear genome.

This list might fill us with hope that we might see a lot of extinct species back again. However, I think it is optimistic already if we expect this to happen in more than one or two species. Not only because of the technical challenges, but also because there is little scientific interest and little founding, because people don’t see “the good” in it, or why we “should” do it, and there are always those unjustified worries and “ethical” nonissues listed above. It is frustrating.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Piebald deer

It was not new to me that the same spotted patterns we see in domestic cattle sometimes also occur in cervids. But until I did a quick google seach I didn't know how widespread it actually is. Spotted patterns can be found in red deer, roe deer, white-tailed deer and elk. At first I thought that these colour variants are the result of incipient domestication. There are deer populations that have been kept in game parks for many generations and it is likely that they have also been selected for tameness to a certain degree, simply for practical reasons. I think it is unlikely that these populations have been totally reproductively isolated, but they were probably isolated enough to develop the typical "novel traits" of domestication: new colour variants (f.e. totally white red deer, or fallow deer with very dark shades), piebald patterns, or shortened skulls (fallow deer). However, the presence of these piebald patterns in elk and white-tailed deer, which have certainly not been kept under the same conditions as those semi-domestic deer populations (at least elk), suggests to me that these traits are not necessarily connected to incipient domestications. Rather it seems that the same mutations that cause piebald patterns in domestic animals also occur "naturally" in wild animals, and sometimes not even rare. For example, there are skandinavian elk populations in which such deviant colour variants are particularly common. Although it has been suggested by scientists involved in the farm fox experiment that such colour mutations are pleiotropically coupled with mutations in the nervous system responsible for tame behaviour, we maybe should not connect such patterns too much with domestication. For example, the African wild dog is piebald in a certain way as well, certain bovids have white "socks" too, and the leopard-like patterns we see in some seals resemble those of some spotted horses as well. 
So perhaps a number of those spotted patterns of domestic animals is not as tightly related to behavioural modifications during domestication as I previously suggested on this blog. I don't know why deer show them particularly often compared to other wild animals.

Now here are some links of piebald deer. 

White-tailed deer:
Roe deer:

There is even a stuffed hare with a streak along its face and sockings, photographed by Markus Bühler:

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Forelocks and manes

It is well supported that the aurochs had curly, frizzy forelocks on its forehead. It is reported from Anton Schneeberger who wrote: “The forehead, because of the curly, frizzy hair, makes them terrible to behold”. The posthumously (1634) published report by a certain Swiecicki mentions this feature as well. Also, belts were made from a bull aurochs’ forelocks in historic times. They were said to increase the fertility of women or help women having difficulties giving birth (see van Vuure, 2005). As a brutal fact, those forelocks were peeled together with the facial skin from the skull of the captured aurochs when it was still alive. Not to forget, Charles Hamilton Smith’s famouspainting of a bull aurochs from 1836, which is drawn from an oil painting dating back to the 16th century, shows these curly forelocks very clear.
Forelocks of a Hereford bull
Such forelocks are very widespread among domestic cattle. I think their function might be display, apart from their probable protective function for the skin between the horns during combats. Bovids that live in hot regions tend to have fleshy structures for display, mostly dewlaps. Those in cold, northern regions cannot effort the heat lost caused by such appendages and therefore often have hairy display structures; such as the mane of the Barbary sheep or the beards of musk ox and bison. The European aurochs is climatically and geographically in between and funnily so are those structures. Those forelocks give the bulls indeed a fierce look, what could be useful in scaring off rivals – the mealy mouth, which is widespread among Bovidae, might have the same function. While the intensity of the forelocks of taurine cattle varies from breed to breed (Chianina, for example, doesn’t have any at all), zebuine cattle never have such (at least not that I know of). This brought me the idea that it might be a legacy of hybridization with bison. When I then got to know that such hybridizations did take place (see Verkaar et al.) I felt that this thought might have some plausibility in it. Although only introgression from Bos to Bison and not reverse is proven so far, I think it is likely that there was mutual hybridization because only sex-based markers (Y and mt) were used in this study.
Interesting side fact: The forelocks, or actually massive bulk of hair, in Bison is not only used for display and as a bumper during combat, but also to remove snow from the ground in order to reach the grass beneath it. Horses do that with their hooves, while cattle, and probably also aurochs, have no such abilities.

Forelocks in cattle are present in both sexes, but many domestic bulls that have forelocks also have a kind of “mane”. Actually it is not a mane as a lion or a Barbary sheep has, but it is merely the same kind of locks that is present all over the neck, parts of the shoulders and often also the entire face. You find that in a lot of breeds. Some Lidia have it to a very prominent extent (here), and also Chillingham cattle have it. But what is most interesting to me is that a number of Heck bulls in Oostvaardersplassen exhibit such a “mane” (f.e. here), while virtually no Heck bull outside the reserve does. Richard Marsh, the cattle warden of Chillingham, believes that this mane serves to protect the skin on face, neck and shoulders of the bulls. So if Lidia and Chillingham cattle, both breeds in which combats often (in the case of the latter always) decide on reproductive success, show that trait, and if Heck cattle in OVP suddenly developed it, it might indeed have such a function. I know that this is based on a weak ground: man plays a way more important rule in reproductive success of Lidia bulls than combat does, many cattle which are totally man-selected do have that trait too, it might have become coincidentally fixed in Chillingham cattle due to all the bottlenecks, and the “mane” is not all that common among OVP bulls. But, on the other hand, the presence of the forelocks themselves in non-primitive breeds is not a prove against their presence in the aurochs either, and the OVP population has been exposed to natural selection for only 10 generations yet. Anyway, it is just a thought. 
The "mane" of a Chillingham bull
Historic reports don’t say anything about such a mane. But the question is, would it be such an eye-catching feature that it would have been considered to be worth mentioning? On the other hand, if Schneeberger mentioned the forelocks he might have mentioned the mane as well. We can only speculate. C.H. Smith’s aurochs painting clearly does not show curly hair on neck or shoulders. The silhouette drawings at the Lascaux cave however do show agglomerations of dots on head, neck and shoulders. While some interpret it as an indication of Chillingham-coloured aurochs, I consider it more likely that they represent curly hair.

While the curly hair on face, neck and shoulders always has the same colour as the rest of the body, the colour of the forelocks varies in wild type-coloured bulls. The forelocks of cows are almost always of a lighter colour than the rest of the head, with a dark shade “coming from above”. In bulls however, the forelocks can be of an either black, reddish brown, orange or blond colour (in de-phaeomelanised cattle like Podolian cattle, the colour turns grey of course). There is no definite clue on what the colour of the aurochs’ forelocks exactly was. Black is the best-supported colour for the simple fact that forelocks of a colour different from the rest of the head are never mentioned or depicted anywhere – neither by any historic reports nor cave paintings or Smith’s aurochs. If the forelocks had been of a special colour, Schneeberger would have probably mentioned it since he also mentioned the muzzle ring and the eel stripe which contrast with the black base colour. There is also a Libyan petroglyph showing a North African bull aurochs, in which both a muzzle ring and a light colour saddle are indicated, but no bright forelocks. Gaurs, on the other hand, have bright blond hair between the horns and so do zebus. So I assumed bright forelocks were a basal state and dark ones the derived state of northern Aurochs. However, Tom Hammond pointed out to me that bright forelocks could be the result of reduced sexual dichromatism which is the case in Gaur and most of the aurochs-like breeds. And indeed the first breed with a clear sexual dichromatism that comes to my mind has mostly dark forelocks in bulls: Maronesa. But this breed displays all possible colours of forelocks in bulls. Bright forelocks in cows are confirmed through a painting at Lascaux.
Therefore, my opinion on the colour of the forelocks in aurochs is that cows’ always were of a blond, orange or reddish colour while that of the bulls were most likely black in most cases, but perhaps there was geographic variation that allowed the presence of brighter forelocks as well. Although we have no evidence for that, I certainly would not make bright forelocks in bulls a negative selection criterion in effigy breeding.

A number of breeds, especially many Heck cattle, do have elongate hair between their horns but they are not curled. Instead they look like the fringes of a carpet. This is probably not what aurochs forelocks should look like. 


Cis van Vuure: Retracing the Aurochs - History, Morphology and Ecology of an extinct wild Ox. Pensoft, Sofia 2005
Verkaar, Nijman, Beeke, Hanekamp, Lenstra: Maternal and Paternal Lineages in Cross-breeding bovine species. Has Wisent a Hybrid Origin?. 2004.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

A Wörth cow is going to join the herd at Lippeaue!

Ever since I got interested in Taurus cattle, I wished to see a cross with Hecks from the Wörth-Steinberg line. Taurus cattle have the long legs and good proportions, often a satisfying skull length, way better size, better stature and often a hump, forwards facing horns and so on. But they often lack the desirable horn size. Wörth Heck cattle would be a desirable option to boost the horn size, and in a number of individuals the undesirable Heck cattle features like the paedomorphic skull and the elongated, heavy body, are not present to the same extent as in many usual "unimproved" members of the breed. 

Margret Bunzel-Drüke from the ABU told me that they have been interested in buying a Wörth cow indeed, "Erni" is their favorite. Luckily, the owner Walter Frisch announced on the VFA's webpage that he is going to sell three pregnant (!) cows and his current breeding bull (I don't know why since this bull looks very nice, or which bull is to follow). I immediately contacted MBD to inform her about that in the hope that one of the cows will appeal them despite Erni is not among them. 
You can imagine how pleased I was when I received the answer that they are going to buy one of the cows. It will be taken to the Lippeaue in March. 

I am pretty sure that the cow is Nostra, a full-blood sister of Arizona and Aretto (the former breeding bull on Wörth), daughter of Albatros and Noriga, which all have good horns. It would be interesting to know which bull is the father of the calf she is carrying, I hope Aribo (the new breeding bull that is going to be sold now) and not one of those with the beige colour saddle. 
Here are some photos of Nostra that I took in 2013: 

I hope her will be a good cow, because a pure Heck bull is unlikely to be used at the Lippeaue. I am very much looking forward to the results this cow will bring, and I am also curious to which bull's herd she will be moved. 
As a foretaste to what we might enjoy to see within even only one generation, here:
I simply took a photo of Lamarck's fullblood sister at the Lippeaue and enlarged her horns with GIMP. 

I am very happy that crossbreeding between Taurus and Wörth cattle is finally going to happen, and that I played even a little role in it. 

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

What would aurochs-coloured Chianina look like?

They would look awesome. Colour is one of the most prominent aspects of an animal’s look, and the first one that catches our eyes. I realized might also blur our perception of aurochs-likeness: a cow with aurochs-like colour that otherwise looks like a farm cow (f.e. many Heck cattle) might appear to be more aurochs-like than a Chianina with way more “primitive” proportions, body conformation and size.

That’s why I hesitated to consider Chianina a primitive breed until one and a half year ago or so – I thought the “wrong colour” is a considerable malus. But first of all, since there is not simply one colour locus that decides whether a colour is wild type or not, the colour of a breed is probably unlikely to be mutated on each locus. For example, Highland cattle are either Ed or e, so the production of eumelanin in the coat is either over-expressed or totally disabled, so we cannot say if they have the genetic make up for sexual dichromatism. Only crossbreeding or genome editing would provide a clue. The shiny red colour of some Highlands implies that they would have probably a nice and un-diluted aurochs colour (independent of sexual dichromatism) if they had the E+ allele. And so forth.

Chianina has the wild type base colour E+ and very likely also sexual dichromatism masked beneath the dilution factors (see the previous post).

Furthermore, and what is way more important, colour is regulated only by a few loci which follow the Mendelian rules quite clear (ignore the transposons that cause some colour variants which are not relevant for aurochs effigy breeding anyway), so it is way easier to breed for or against colour variants than it is for traits like size, proportions, appendages, horn size, skull shape and any other polygenic traits. This should be known to any animal breeder. Therefore, I prefer an aurochs-sized and aurochs-proportioned Chianina over a mediocrely aurochs-coloured Heck.

Anyway, to see how colour affects our perception of the looks of an animal, and also to see which results crossbreeding with Chianina can achieve, I did this drawing of hypothetical aurochs-coloured Chianina using the photo of a cow from Wikipedia and that of a bull I found via google (I would like to put the link there, but I couldn't find it anymore):

I admit the drawing is sloppy. But it was not my intention to fabricate a masterpiece, but merely to give an impression how such Chianina would look like. It would probably take a while to breed them, because all those annoying dilutions are at least partly recessive. All aurochs projects and Heck cattle have this problem.

Aurochs-coloured Highlands might be easier to breed because they do not have such dilutions, brindle is widespread but dominant and therefore easier to eradicate from the population. Taking black Highlands would be wise to avoid the recessive red variant, and crossbreeding with Maronesa might be the fastest way because they have the desired sexual dichromatism and long horns as well. It would be pointless from the breeding-back perspective, but fun. Initially I intended to draw hypothetical aurochs-coloured Highlands as well, but was too lazy in the end.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

News from the True Nature Foundation

The TNF, the foundation that runs the Uruz Project, has posted the news that they received a number of Watussi cows from the Brüggen Zoo and they were moved to Bielefeld, where they will form a new breeding herd together with at least one Chianina bull. For a photo of these Watussi, go here. I was told that they are about 130 cm tall at the withers. That bull is a very young one, a son of one of the Chianina at Kloster Lorsch, and will turn one year old in April.
Claus Kropp kindly provided me with a photo of this bull calf from December 2014: 
It can't be judged how it looks will be like yet, but it seems that it is going to be a long legged and short trunked critter, also when looking at its mother. Considering that his mother is 165 cm tall according to C. Kropp, I am really curious on how large he is going to get. 
I was happy to see that this is his mother, as she is my favorite Chianina at Lorsch. Her build is very good with a decent hump, and her horn curvature is very desirable as well (the right one was accidentely deformed at young age, I was told). If you compare the colour of the mother below and the bull calf above, you might see that the first one has a beige/light brown tint while the latter one has a dark greyish tint, which is a clear sign of sexual dichromatism masked beneath all those dilution factors. The Sayaguesa x Chianina crossbreeds at the Lippeaue show the same. Therefore I am convinced that the chance is high that Chianina have retained sexual dichromatism. This will be helpful to get a good colour out of the Chianina x Watussi combination.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Dedomestication series pt. IV: Implications for "breeding-back"

The aurochs was, per definitionem, the wild type of Bos primigenius. If “breeding back” aims to approach the aurochs as close as possible, the result has, ultimately, to be a wild animal. Artificial breeding with domestic breeds can only result in an animal that is itself domestic, no matter how aurochs-like it looks, and it will still display a number of domestic traits – be it optic, behavioural or whatever.

For part I, for part II, for part III, for part IV.

Nature knows better

Our knowledge of the developmental cascades of many domestic traits is probably not deep enough to select against them and reconstitute the original, wild-type state. See for example the fact that selective breeding in farm foxes for earlier maturity and more offspring directly was not fruitful, but selection for tameness alone brought exactly that result. How to select on the genes coding for endocrinologic cascades that regulate the amount of hormones that control how bulky or muscular the body is, or those that regulate the timing of developmental mechanisms that result in an either elongate or paedomorphic skull? I am sure that just selection for long snouts or an athletic body directly in a population where these features are present only to a mediocre extent (f.e. uncrossed Heck cattle) will not be fully successful. The same goes for achieving a well-developed sexual dimorphism both in size and colour. Just selecting for large bulls or small cows certainly would not do it, breeding only with bulls that mature late would slow down the whole breeding process which is slow enough already and it even is not sure whether this is the right way or not. If just always taking out all black cows is the effective way to achieve a fixated, well-pronounced sexual colour dimorphism is dubious as well, because always even in Heck cattle herds with a good sexual dimorphism half of the cows are coloured like bulls.

Artificial selection might even be counteracting itself. I already expressed my thought that the muscular, athletic body of Lidia might be linked to its temperament. For example, the True Nature Foundation plans to do a project trying to collect suitably aurochs-like Lidia and breed them for a greater resemblance of their ancestor (which is awesome, I have been dreaming of such a project for a long time). But the selection program will also include selection against aggressiveness to make them easier to handle. That is fully understandable, grazing projects do the same, nobody wants dangerous cattle that are impossible to handle. But actually this is the same breeding for tameness and docility as in the farm fox experiment, so maybe it will result in a further domestication of fighting cattle and therefore reduce the athletic, muscular body and cause more paedomorphic features? This is just an idea, future might show if there is truth in my guess. The same goes for the pleiotropic connections between traits, such as those that cause white spots. I think that most of those connections are hardly accessible to us and that hinders us from effectively selecting for the desired phenotypic traits. For example, domestication in bovines almost always results in the horns getting “pulled” outwards or up/downwards. This is apparent in a lot of cattle and sheep breeds. Many breeds used in breeding-back have such horns and it proved to be difficult to select for a fully aurochs-like horn shape, but in OVP it seemingly developed by itself in a few individuals. The next problem is that we do not know how large exactly the impact of phenotypic plasticity is (f.e. on muscularity of the body, horn and body size, skull shape etc.; in the case of behaviour it is clear that environment is a crucial factor). To evaluate that, extensive comparative studies would be necessary which would take several years.

Probably all cattle would show herding and defensive behaviour in the wilderness. Free-ranging cattle do and also farm cows defend their calves aggressively. It is open whether the reproductive circle of cattle adapts to the seasons due to environmental impulses or natural selection, but I think the latter is the case because cattle in grazing projects are not fully adapted to the seasons in this respect. Perhaps natural selection could be mimicked by taking out cows and their calves that calved during winter or fall, but I am not sure if this would work.

All in all I would simply say that “nature knows better” in any case. This does not only apply to ecologic and immunological capacities, which are not visible and already present in primitive landraces to a certain(!) extent. The fact that certain wild traits appeared in free-ranging populations whose founding individuals certainly did not have them (f.e. the hump and body conformation in OVP, S.v.F. and Amsterdam cattle, or the long snout in some cows at OVP) and probably would have been hardly achieved by selective breeding implicates to me that natural selection “re-develops” aurochs-traits in the way outlined in the previous posts and better than artificial selection ever could. Artificial selection probably would be more of a mimic of adaptive wild type (=aurochs) traits, while natural selection produces truly adaptive traits. Natural selection knows better how to eradicate domestic traits such as paedomorphy or a reduced sexual dimorphism because we have no exact clue of the connections and interactions of development, pleiotropy and environment in morphology, behaviour and ecologic and immunologic capacities.

How to do it

Nevertheless, I think that simply tossing some bunch of any cattle into nature will not result in the dedomesticated near-aurochs that we want to see. The existing free-ranging cattle populations demonstrate that. If the founding individuals do not have horns that are either already aurochs-like in certain aspects or at least very diverse, it would take either very long for aurochs-like horns to evolve or they would end up in a more or less different shape. Aurochs colour (E+) won’t evolve if not present. Colour probably only has a weak influence on evolutionary fitness in cattle and probably coincidence will play a large role in when a certain colour variant becomes fixated in the population. So releasing just any cattle of any colours will not result in an authentic, aurochs-like colour – just as an example.  

As outlined in pt. III, we cannot simply expect that “nature” always changes the cattle in the way the aurochs was. Evolution is not static but dynamic and animals always adapt to the current circumstances. If we want a wild, near-aurochs, we have to simulate the evolutional adaptive environment the original lived in. The European aurochs evolved under the predative pressure not only of wolves (as juveniles also lynxes, foxes and bears), but also big cats (not only until the end of the Pleistocene; lions and leopards still lived in parts of southern Europe into the antiquary). They had way more space to live, graze and migrate and had to compete with a whole range of other herbivores. For that, a large reserve would be necessary to avoid the island effect and introduce competing herbivores (the most important competitors probably are deer and horses, as realised in the OVP) and carnivores. The introduction of big cats is a topic that I do not want to open here but let’s assume it won’t happen and there will be only fox, lynx and wolves (bears are problematic as well). No medical care or supplementary feeding will cause legal problems which should be solved like in the OVP and what the Tauros Project is trying to achieve, i.e. to classify the cattle as res nullius and legally wild animals. The cattle would have to be totally reproductively isolated, otherwise the dedomestication process would slow down.

And that’s how I would do it:

At first I would try to produce an aurochs effigy that is as authentic as possible by selective breeding (“breeding-back”). All or most desired traits that can be achieved should be present and as be stable as possible. Then I would introduce them together with individuals of primitive cattle like good Sayaguesa, Lidia, perhaps Maronesa and good Chianina, Castellana Axarquica, good Boskarin, Betizu for their feral history and Yakut cattle for their great adaptions to cold and their genetic distance to European breeds. The result would be a genetically diverse population that has all aurochs features and all founding breeds well-adapted to harsh climate, sparse vegetation and resistant to diseases. But I would not include too many individuals of breeds with strong dilution factors and/or short horns. The heterogeneity in the first generations would be high, and it would certainly be very interesting to see how the frequency of the single features is going to evolve. The traits should be categorized and their frequency be evaluated all three years or so, to document the evolutional shift in the population. Selective culling should only be used as a tool when it is apparent that natural selection has left a strong mark in the population already. Culling should focus primarily on fur colour, and only be carried out if the population is in a good state. For example, the Heck cattle at OVP are in a crisis at the moment and the last thing that I would do now is selective culling. I think an ideal population size would be 500 individuals at least. In any case more than 100.

But let’s be realistic, an area large enough to sustain a viable population of all the three herbivores plus wolves and perhaps also lynx that also can remain totally untouched by human management is not easy to achieve for conservation. But also without predators, most of the selective pressures described in part II would still be there, and if you have read carefully you probably noticed that predators are likely not among the most important factors acting upon such a free-ranging population.

The concept I described is basically what the Polish naturalist Feliks Pawel Jarocki suggested as early as 1835 (without the selective breeding part), only eight years after the aurochs was formerly described. He proposed that the release of cattle into wilderness so that they would live under the same circumstances as the aurochs did, would result in a “revival” of the original form. Note that I am not claiming that the original European aurochs can be revived the way described here.

Therefore what I am suggesting is a mix of breeding-back and dedomestication. My opinion is that dedomestication inevitably has to be the end phase of creating a near-aurochs. “Natural selection with a kick-start”, as the Tauros Project would call it.

Feral, wild and dedomesticated

At which point should be call such a dedomesticated aurochs-like population “wild”? Actually I have been dealing with terms like “dedomesticated”, “feral” and “wild” without defining them appropriately all the time. What I do now is what I should have done right at the beginning of the dedomestication series, I apologize. Parts of my definitions are inspired by those given by the user “Roberta” in the Carnivora Forum thread on the aurochs.

While genetics use the “wt” terminology mainly for alleles or any phenotypic features, zoology considers all aspects of the entire species, also including its history and interaction with the environment. Both feral and wild populations have in common that they are not enclosed (on small scale) and not dependent on active human help (this does not apply if the species is a commensal, where its ecological niche is living from and around human civilization). A wild species evolved/-s with and within its ecosystem and therefore does not change it rapid and dramatically. A feral species, on the other hand, is sometimes invasive and sometimes not.

Another distinction between feral and domestic might be the amount of genetic structure that was either influenced by evolution or by man. Considering that there are actually a lot of populations of wild animals are managed to some extent and are physically limited, this aspect might be of much greater importance. A wild type trait is defined as a trait that is shaped by evolution, not by man, and occurs in nature. As you have probably noticed, this applies to both a pre-domestic and a (I think hereby I introduce a new term) post-domestic phase. Classic zoological terminology only recognized pre-domestic wild animals as “wild-types” and therefore a wild type is usually also understood as the wild forerunner of the domestic type, and it never was considered that there can be a post-domestic wild-type as well. If you will, the Dingo or the European mufflon are post-domestic wild animals to me, or at least wild animals. They have been living in the wild for long enough, are adapted to their environment (with the exception of those mufflon populations that have been introduced where this species simply is not native, f.e. wet Central European lowland forests) and are an integral part of the ecosystem without causing changes that we call “damage”. But as you see, the line between feral and wild becomes arbitrary at this point. I would call Chillingham cattle and the Heck cattle at OVP not even truly feral, because both live on a rather small, enclosed area and furthermore, the Heck cattle have not been living there for all too long, and the genetic structure of Chillingham cattle is highly influenced by man (see previous part). In this case, I prefer to call the state they are living in “free-ranging”. Amsterdam Island cattle and Betizu on the other hand are/were feral in my understanding of the word.

No question that a post-domestic wild animal has to be a dedomesticated animal. Dedomestication is, as the word implies, the “reversal” of domestication. However, I prefer to call it the loss of domestic traits, as “reversal” implies the full re-emergence of the original state, which is not the case. Those domestic traits are, to put it in a nutshell:

- Paedomorphic features both in behaviour and morphology.

- reduced sexual dimorphism and usually also brain volume

- novel morphological traits (colour variants, horn shapes/sizes, change of body size, appendages etc.) due to pleiotropy, developmental cascades and relaxed selection; sometimes exaggerated due to artificial selection

- reduction of traits crucial for reproductive success – behavioural, immunological, sensory, ecological or morphological – due to relaxed selection

- loss or reduction of traits linked to sexual selection due to artificial selection

- Heterogeneity due to genetic drift and artificial selection

I would not say that a post-domestic or secondary wild type has to have lost all of those domestic traits; only those that lower the reproductive success. If natural selection or genetic drift allows or even fixates novel traits like some colour or horn variants or structures like a large dewlap, I think it is OK. In my opinion, they don’t even have to be completely homogeneous in terms of horn shapes and colour. First of all, the aurochs was quite diverse regarding the pronunciation of the “primigenius spiral”, size and orientation relative to the snout, and the snout length itself varied slightly as well. Although most wild species are highly uniform, there are some displaying more than one colour variants. Northern wolves for example are more or less diverse in that respect, partly also thanks to domestic dog introgression.

How to scientifically categorize the such a type of cattle? Regardless of if you regard domestic animals taxonomically relevant or not, these cattle would not be domestic, so why not classifying them? If so, I would simply tag them as Bos primigenius taurus because they will be neither genetically nor phenotypically 100% identical to any of the three aurochs subspecies, and the epitheton “taurus” has already been given for the domestic cattle clade. However, a prerequisite for a taxonomic status is that these post-domestic cattle form one reproductive (meta)population.

All in all, the line between feral and wild is fluid and the distinction is subjective. I doubt that we will live long enough to see a fully dedomesticated near-aurochs, but at least there are good chances to see an aurochs-like cattle population in a process of dedomestication which shows clear signs of evolutionary changes. The challenge is to find a suitable area of sufficient size and overcome legal and public issues.