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Monday, 20 February 2017

What's so charming about the aurochs?

I have some material prepared for several posts, just not the time yet to finish them. Therefore, I ask for patience – more is to come soon. In the meantime, a more “philosophical” post.   

Some animals do have some sort of charisma. Dinosaurs are charismatic, for example – there are millions of dinosaur fans on this world, and some of them have made it their profession. Big cats also capture the fascination of people, otherwise they would not be the focus of wallpapers or there would be no cars or weapons named after them. The aurochs has a kind of charisma too. There have been scientists, artists and cattle breeders obsessed with this animal, and there are still dozens, probably hundred or perhaps even thousands of people that are interested in this bovine, many of them in a very passionate way (and there is reason to believe that the numbers are rising). So what makes this animal that fascinating?
 
Magnificent beast or ordinary cattle?
If the aurochs was not extinct, we would probably regard them as ordinary bovines. Surely, living aurochs would be an impressive sight – their size, their horns, their athletic energetic body. And some zoo visitors might even notice that their sexes have totally different colours, which is quite unusual for most mammals. But other wild bovines are very impressive too, and people do not usually go nuts about them.
I think it is mostly the fact that the aurochs is extinct that makes it that interesting in the first place. Particularly that it was evidently driven to extinction by man in recent times, and did not die out for unknown reasons some millennia ago. And it would be still around without anthropogenic influence. This makes the aurochs a lot more graspable. There is similar interest in other animals driven to extinction by man, such as the thylacine or the dodo (which, in any case, were both unique animals). It is the mere fact that we could still see these animals in flesh, living and breathing, if the actions of our species had been less consuming and destructive that provokes interest and emotions.
            Furthermore, there is something that makes the aurochs more graspable than most other extinct animals – it has living descendants that happen to be one of our most familiar livestock, cattle. But everything in the aurochs was more spectacular, wilder – its body was larger, its horns were larger, they were athletically built and powerful, of an eye-catching contrast-rich colouration and their frizzy forelocks gave them a wild and fierce look (according to people who saw them in live). And because of the fact that they are extinct they get (wrongly) associated with mammoths and the other spectacular glacial fauna (they were, however, a key part of the not less spectacular interglacial fauna). So the aurochs is on the one side an animal we can relate to, but on the other side has an aura of being wild, untamed, strong and ancient.

The fact that the aurochs has living descendants that all preserve its trait to a greater or lesser extent is what makes it really exciting. Isn’t it fascinating to see that this one cow might have horns of a shape like the wild-type that disappeared, while the other cow might be coloured exactly like a wild cow, and isn’t tempting to try unifying all those preserved optical wild-type traits in one strain? Fortunately a number of projects try exactly that. The concept is fascinating: picking the most suited breeds, crossbreeding them and trying to achieve something that optically resembles the aurochs as far as possible. And since all those suited breeds are hardy, healthy and robust enough to survive on their own, and because cattle – as direct descendants of the aurochs – probably work ecologically in a very similar if not identical manner, such a result would not only look like the aurochs but also ecologically fill its niche and probably also behave very similar. The next best thing to cloning, and exciting to watch. It is exciting to see what has been achieved so far, to watch it progressing and to think on how it might be improved. So, here we do not only have the chance of creating a close approximation to an extinct animal with living animals in flesh and blood, and not just with pen and paper as I used to do it for years, but also to fill an ecological niche that has been made vacant by human actions.

It was exactly that chance to fill a vacant ecological with animals that resemble an extinct form that got me that much into the aurochs in 2011. Now I am one of the many aurochs enthusiasts, and it is a surprisingly rich topic – it not only includes palaeontology and zooarchaeology, but also ecology, genetics and animal breeding. I am concerning myself with that topic since almost exactly six years now, and it simply does not get boring – quite the contrary, it keeps being exciting.

11 comments:

  1. Hi Daniel, I am looking forward to the results of the various breeding programs over the next few years, hopefully everything but especially size and horns will improve. I did a check on Elephas (Paleoloxodon) Antiquus, the Straight-tusked elephant on the web recently to see if the was any new information on this little known extinct European elephant. I was amazed to see an article in Nature.com by Ewen Callaway which describes the analysis of the Antiquus genome and found that it was extremely closely related to Loxodonta cyclotis, the African Forest elephant, much closer than that elephant is to the African Savannah elephant. Would this mean that Paleoloxodon Antiquus was a sub species of Loxodonta cyclotis and can we expect that Cyclotis would be a fully acceptable proxy for rewilding browsing in central and southern Europe? David Kenny

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    1. I would say no, this idea probably wouldn't work. First of all, Palaeoloxodon antiquus was not a subspecies of L. cyclotis, that nature news article just says it is most closely related to it among living elephants (have not seen a paper on that study though). P. antiquus and L. cyclotis are from totally different climatic zones, African forest elephants would probably die here. They are not comparable in morphology and size either. Just because two animals are related, it does not mean that they are ecologically similar.
      I also doubt that Europe really needs a proxy for Palaeoloxodon or Stephanochoerus; Europe's biodiversity did well without them during the last 30.000 years, it is not clear whether they have been killed off by humans or not. But if they were successfully cloned (theoretically), they would probably do no ecologic harm here, I think.

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  2. Hi Daniel, You are right, I made a few ambitious jumps there. The Forest elephant depends a lot on fruit from what I read, not much of that available in Europe's southern forests year round. It will be interesting to see more of these studies and the papers they are based on in future. Regards, David

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    1. I think climate is the biggest barrier, they would simply die during winter.

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  4. The bantengs, gaurs ...etc are amazing animals that I love to watch (I hope the Kouprey it´s not extinct...) but the auroch has something that make it a closer to us: It certainly lived on Europe and It would totally be living here if the human interference didn´t make them go extinct.
    I think that people of this continent feel it closer to them because of that.

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    1. Yes, I think that's another main reason, I mentioned that in the post as well.

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    2. Yeah, I only wanted to enmphatise that it was an European animal that could have been the most iconic animal in the nature "around us". Like the bear or the iberian lynx.

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  5. Of course aurochs is also mythologically extremely important animal, both in Near East and Europe. And was Europa not seduced by Zeus in form of an aurochs? If that is not charisma then what is?

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  6. Thank you again Daniël for your philosophic revelations... I share your enthousiasm of the rich world following up on rebreeding aurochs has opened for all of us. Thankfull that you try to document it for all of us to see.
    All the breeders should finance you to follow up and promote the general aim, and their specific aim, their animals and products.
    Would you have tips of interests/must-reads regarding interglacial species-ecology?
    Regards!

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    1. Thanks for the kind words. I know of no comprehensive books on this subjects if you want to go deeper into this subject, I primarily use papers as a reference.

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