Thursday, 29 June 2017

Crossbreeding proposal: Maronesa x Chianina

I love brainstorming about new crossbreeding herds that have not been tried by any of the existing projects before, thinking about balancing the pro’s and con’s of the breeds involved and how fast you might get success. There is one crossbreeding idea that is in my mind for a few years now, and with this post I want to outline why I think that this combination would be fast and effective. I hope that someone who has more practical possibilities than I have reads it and might be inspired.
I propose a cross herd of Maronesa x Chianina. It becomes obvious why when comparing the pro’s and con’s for both breeds – I go over it step by step.


Maronesa is a breed from the Portuguese uplands and therefore used to precipitation and cold temperature, as you can see in their well-developed winter coat and hairy udders. It is, as all primitive landraces are, variable regarding the degree of primitiveness. There are herds that have a more derived, more domestic body, face and horns, but since one always has to pick the best individuals out of each breed, let us ignore the very derived members of the breed. Surely Maronesa has its deficiencies, and I am going to outline them later on, I am going to sum up why I consider this breed very valuable for almost all aurochs projects.
First of all, the colour is almost always identical to that of the aurochs. It does not have any of the annoying dilution alleles nor do they have tiny white spots such as some Sayaguesa or Pajuna unfortunately do. And very importantly: Maronesa is one of the very few breeds that almost always shows a consistent sexual dimorphism in colour (dichromatism). Some cows are darker than others, some are even bull-coloured, but the majority has a dark brown or reddish brown chestnut colour and bulls never retain a colour saddle. This is very valuable, as sexual dimorphism is a complicated trait that is probably not to be restorable by conventional breeding (just always picking dark bulls and lightly coloured cows in a cross herd probably will not do it). So it is very practical to have a breed where this complicated trait is still alright.
Many Maronesa have a colour that is perfectly aurochs-like
Secondly, Maronesa is one of the very few breeds that has individuals with horns curving inwards decently. This trait is a rarity among primitive breeds and you see that it is the only trait that is lacking in most individuals of breeding-back projects. Surely, there are a lot of Maronesa cows with corkscrewed horns and bulls with comparably strait horns, but also a lot with aurochs-like horns. Suitable Maronesa individuals would probably improve the horn curvature of any breeding-back project.
Horns curving inwards that decently are a rarety among aurochs-like cattle
Especially in bulls
This is why I would appreciate the use of good Maronesa in virtually any breeding-back project.

Now to the deficiencies: What is rather obvious from a lot Maronesa individuals, also the very good ones, is that their snouts are too short. Many have a paedomorphic face, some even a “bulldog face”. Of course there is variation as well, and in some cows the snout length is ok, but still needs improvement. Bulls, on the other hand, are almost always too short-snouted. Furthermore, Maronesa is not a large breed. According to the Domestic Animal Diversity Information System, the size for bulls is 140cm, for cow 130cm at the shoulders. Surely there are also larger and smaller individuals, but it is a plausible mean height and makes it about as small as Heck cattle. As a third drawback, while many cows have a good body shape and are proportioned aurochs-like, many bulls appear not that long-legged or actually short-legged and have a comparably heavy body.


It is no secret that this Italian breed is the largest cattle breed in the world. Therefore, its quality in this respect is obvious. But Chianina are not only large, but the right individuals are also of a tall build and have a slender, tight body. Therefore, Chianina is very advantageous for achieving aurochs-like size and proportions. The skull shape is neither long nor short, nor is it paedomorphic. The horns of Chianina are unfortunately tiny and but sometimes of a useful shape. Chianina has dilution alleles on at least two loci (Dun, Agouti), perhaps even more, that remove all the pigment from the coat. One of these loci is semi-dominant and therefore easy to purge, but the others are recessive and therefore difficult to breed out again.
Chianina bull and cow with a long-legged, slender body
To sum up the pro’s and con’s of both breeds:


Correct aurochs colour with well-marked sexual dimorphism
Inwards-curving aurochs-like horns in both sexes
Suited to harsh Central European climate
Some cows with aurochs-like proportions and body shape

Mostly short faced, especially the bulls
Some bulls are rather heavy
Comparably small size


Large and tall
Good body shape in both sexes

Horns very small
Dilution factors reducing and removing the pigment

So as you see, both breed complement each other perfectly in almost all respects. A cross herd of Maronesa x Chianina individuals bears the potential for large, aurochs-like proportioned animals in both sexes that have a powerful build with a correct colour and well-expressed sexual dichromatism. Surely, the semi-dominant and recessive dilution alleles would have to be bred out, and that takes its time, but that is a problem that all current projects face. Concerning sexual dichromatism, it is likely that Chianina has preserved some degree of sexual dichromatism masked beneath the dilution alleles, as the Sayaguesa x Chianina crosses of the ABU suggest. Choosing the right individuals would enable the achievement of a very aurochs-like horn curvature. So the results would come pretty close to the goal, and they would probably also do well in Central European climate.
But it would not be perfect, of course. For example, this combination might need some boost in horn volume. The horns of Chianina are tiny, while those of Maronesa are medium-sized to more or less long, but often not thick enough, and Chianina would shrink that further down (however, there is the chance that crossbreeding results can have horns larger than the founding breeds due to genetics, just as nobody would expect Chianina-sized horns on a Heck x Sayaguesa F2). So which breed would be suitable to boost the horn volume in a herd of good Maronesa x Chianina? I would pick well-horned Heck cattle of the Wörth lineage for a number of reasons. First of all, the number of aurochs-like breeds with truly large and thick horns is very limited. Barrosa, Cachena and Podolian breeds might have long horns, but they are usually not nearly as thick as in the most impressive Wörth Heck individuals. Texas Longhorn have impressive horns, but they are very wide-ranging and would therefore mess up the horn curvature while that of many Wörth Hecks is ok. Additionally, one would not introduce any further undesirable colour variants with Wörth Heck cattle, where dilution alleles have been largely purged out and white spots do not appear. And, another advantage, Heck cattle are suited perfectly to central European climate and develop a long and dense winter coat. So in order to achieve an aurochs-like horn volume, I would start breeding with the Maronesa x Chianina crossbreeds, breeding them as aurochs-like as possible and see how large the horns will get. Then, when the horn volume does not seem to reach the appointments, I would cautiously add one large-horned Wörth Heck cow and then use a bull that is either quarter Wörth Heck or a good F2 for further breeding, and then remove the Heck cow again.
Snout length might also be deficient in this combination. For this trait I would include a long-snouted Sayaguesa cow in the same manner as just described.

A plea for more Maronesa

Maronesa is currently used only in the Tauros Project, but one of those breeds that are very practicable for breeding-back as you get a lot of desirable traits at once. Another one is Sayaguesa, where you get traits like size, good body shape, long snouts, and horns facing forwards at once. Sayaguesa has proven its value and is therefore currently used in all aurochs projects. Maronesa surely has its deficiencies that are as obvious as its advantages, but that goes for Sayaguesa as well (such as the very reduced dichromatism, hanging back in many individuals, lyre-shaped horns in many cows). It is always the challenge of compensating the negative traits with a suitable breed and selecting against them. And as Taurus cattle have shown, it is possible to successfully correct negative traits such as small size and short snouts by using a large (Chianina) and long-snouted breed (Sayaguesa) and achieve large animals with long snouts.

The True Nature Foundation works on improving aurochs-like Maronesa at the moment. Choosing the right individuals and effective selection might produce a Maronesa strain that is very valuable for other aurochs projects. I guess that most individuals that are sold will be bulls, so it might be possible for other projects to acquire young bulls at least.
Margret Bunzel-Drüke once considered the possibility that Maronesa might be good for the Taurus cattle at the Lippeaue, but concluded that it would deplete the achieved success regarding size, long snouts and slender build, especially in bulls, again and I understand that conclusion. Individuals with inwards-facing horns are present in the Lippeaue anyway, just their abundance has to be increased. But for other projects, I think that using Maronesa in some form would be helpful, especially for achieving aurochs-like horn shapes. Even “usual” Heck cattle would profit from crossing-in Maronesa. Some Heck breeders fear that crossing with large primitive breeds would result in calving problems in pure Heck cows. This worry would not exist with Maronesa, because both breeds are of the same size. Also, Maronesa would not alter the identity of Heck cattle that much – the animals would still be of the same size, same colour and short-faced. They would just have better horns. But single crossing-in of good Maronesa  would probably make the good genes drown in the un-coordinated chaos that the Heck cattle population is as a whole. Considering the rareness of Maronesa and especially the aurochs-like Maronesa it would be a waste; it would only make sense in herds of really good Heck cattle in the hands of breeders paying attention to really aurochs-like traits, such as the former Wörth herd.

PS: Maltese cattle

One might ask why I haven’t proposed Maltese cattle as an option to cross with Maronesa instead of Chianina. They are about the same size and also excellently shaped, more long-snouted and have a wildtype coloured-coat instead of a diluted one (genes for diluted coats should be in the population though, as they were crossbred with Chianina). So they seem like a better option. But the problem is, the population of this breed is very small (2 herds consisting of 12 males and 19 females in 2015, see here), so they might be very difficult to acquire.


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  2. When two breeds that both have several disadvantages are combined, then it's likely that their offspring will have disadvantages too. So this way will need a lot of balancing...
    The last living auroch weren't that big, i think maybe at the end breeding really big cattle will just make a disadvantage if it's seriously about rewildering, because that flora is also extinct.

    1. I am aware of the basic principles of breeding. That's why the projects do not just cross breeds but cross end select. The last living aurochs were smaller likely due to habitat restriction, so that was an anthropogenic effect. And I do not know what extinct flora you are talking about and suspect you are aurochs1.

    2. Well, i mean the habitats are still restricted...and with this it's likely that it is more difficult to find places for rewildering large animals.
      What is "aurochs1", a nickname ? Not mine...

    3. ....Probably we should breed all megaherbivores to smaller sizes. So we can release them in larger numbers... We should also breed elk and deer with smaller antlers, it would save them a lot of minerals and makes them less attractive for poachers.
      Please more elaboration before commenting.

    4. I think if a habitat supports especially large cattle, then a rewildered population would generate itself somewhat larger individuals over time, due to natural selection.
      And if breeders focuss on size then this could distract from focussing on other features...and at the end it may be questionable if this makes an advantage.

      So i don't know how big aurochs were at wich time, however here is a study from 2013, i just overflied it, maybe it's a point of inerest. On page 259/260 it says, for example :
      "4.3 Summary...The results of this study, along with the previous section on Italy (Section 3.5) have also provided more evidence that the greatest decrease in size, may have taken place during the last interglacial."
      "evidence of an increase in the size of a number of different anatomical elements in Chalcolithic samples from both Portugal and Spain. No other areas show a size increase during this period"
      ...or on page 281 :
      "...and that the most distinct size decrease may have taken place at around the time of the last interglacial (MIS 5). The most likely factor causing these fluctuations is climate."
      So the question would be if the auroch-like-cattle is bred to ice-age-size, and if it is : would it give them an advantage now...

    5. In the end we wouldn't have to breed for aurochs-like horns since the horn shape of the aurochs was very likely functional and would have been favoured by selection. Also the body shape and proportions. So in the end, breeding on optical traits might focus on the trait influenced the least by selection: colour. The other traits would probably (re)develop after time.

      I am not in favour of this.

      By the way. Each reserve is a little island compared to the original habitat of a megaherbivore. This is also true for each reserve the wisent is currently living on. If we humans would keep them confined like this for some more centuries, wisent would end up the same size of farm cattle or smaller because it is more advantageous. Should we breed wisents for smaller size now? No.

    6. Maybe in a way it's true. If the auroch-like genes are still around in a population, maybe just drop it in a habitat with some predators around. And now : just wait.
      Maybe just take 1 million individulas and wait 1 million years, and maybe they will select themselves for auroch-traits.
      However, if one looks at other species, if it's wolf or boar or whatever, the individuals within a species mostly look the same, but if they are populating a greater area then size within a species can vary. Maybe a big wolf weights about four times as much as a small one, and in boar it's even more.
      So Chianina have impressive bodies, but i think it will be hardly possible to cross them that way that auroch-like heads get attached on that bodies, just because there are no animals of other breeds of this size that have the rigth proportions. So if one wants auroch-like proportions within Chianina-crosses then Chianina has to get watered down, so the animals would become smaller again and with this one would drop that Chianina-advantage...

    7. No, crossbreeding and selecting is always about balancing traits, just as you wrote. Of course it is possible to breed animals the size and proportions of Chianina with "aurochs like heads attached" to them. Look at the Taurus bull 42 623 that has a more "aurochs like head" than any Chianina (thought still not long-snouted enough) that is the size of Chianina (at least 170cm at the shoulders).

  3. Maltese breed can be used with artificial insemination, using Maltese bull's sperm, f.ex.
    This two breeds are definitly among my favorites, but no doubts Sayaguesa is also a must. I also like Camargue, Franqueiro, some Lidia, Maremmana primitivo, Pajuna, Raça Preta and Serrana de teruel. All of them have interesting aspects.

    1. Yep, a post on "alternative breeds" that are currently not used in any projects is in preparation ;-).

    2. Hi Daniel, that seams interesting to read about it. I can't wait to see it :)

  4. I am excited to read your alternative breed post! Are there any obstacles to getting some Maltese Bull sperm to use for artificial insemination? What are the costs? Are the organizations that are in charge of the Maltese Ox back-breeding project open to parting with some sperm from their bulls?