Friday, 22 September 2017

My vision for 2050

Having looked back at past couple of years in this post, let us look forward now. I take the year 2050 as a benchmark for a vision that I hope might become reality in the ideal case, based on predictions and also personal wishes and recommendations.

How far will “breeding-back” be by 2050?

By 2050, if things go well for all the projects that exist today, all of them will be rather progressed (33 years mean 11 generations at maximum), and there are good chances that a number of individuals already reached my “second milestone”, uniting all achievable aurochs-like characteristics in one individual. However, I think one should not make illusions on the genetic stability of the populations. Depending on the selection policy and breeding technique of the respective projects or herds, the populations will be more or less progressed and many individuals might resemble the aurochs quite well already, but probably in a variation spectrum that also includes a lot of traits of the founding breeds, and especially a recessive genes tend to remain in a gene pool for a quite long period of time (some undesired colour variants, perhaps also variants responsible for tiny horns etc.).
Nevertheless, let us assume that most projects will have quite satisfying and also impressive results by 2050.

From project A vs B vs C to one big metapopulation

It has been my dreams for several years now that one day, at a point when all projects have achieved a good quantity and quality of animals of progressed generations that there will be no more population separation between the projects and breeds when it makes sense from a breeding perspective to unite them by exchanging individuals. Now, in 2017, it would not make sense yet. For example, if a good Taurus bull of a progressed generation would be sold to a Tauros herd made up of pure or first-generation individuals, the offspring would look good because the Taurus bull already unites a lot of desired traits; if a Tauros bull, on the other hand, was put on a more progressed Taurus herd now, it would just increase the number of undesired traits in the herd while all desired traits are already found in the population (just not in one individual at the same time). Tauros (and the other, more recent projects too) have to create well-mixed populations yet that enable them to pick individuals that contain the full potential of the founding breeds. The Lippeaue herd has a time advance in this respect because they started crossbreeding in 1996 and now have all kind of possible breed combinations in their herd.
Exchange between projects would make sense at a point when all projects have reached a level where the gene pool has been mixed well and animals of a certain quality level are prevalent. At an too early state it would not really make sense. Except of course if one project needs f.e. bigger-horned individuals in general, and adds a large horned individual from another project.

What would be the benefit of exchanging individuals and creating a metapopulation? Alleles have a higher risk of disappearing in smaller populations, and by exchanging individuals from on fractioned population to the other you create a large, diverse metapopulation. One large metapopulation would be more than the sum of several separate lines/breeds from a genetic perspective, for the same reason why one big reserve is more than the sum of several small reserves. It means a larger gene pool, more genetic diversity and therefore healthier populations with a higher degree of adaptability.

It also means that also means that the different “breeding-back” results, Taurus cattle, Tauros cattle, Auerrind cattle, Uruz cattle (if the latter project comes underway), and well-selected Heck cattle will amalgamate into one big, indistinguishable type of very aurochs-like cattle. One would maybe need a new term for those, but I simply suggest to stick with “aurochs-like cattle”.

The creation of the large metapopulation of course requires (a more or less coordinated) cooperation between the projects and breeders.

At least one reserve having a complete megafauna

Currently, there are no reserves that have restored a complete Holocene megafaunal community in Europe. I hope that by 2050 we have at least one reserve that is large enough to support populations of deer, wild boar, cattle, horses, wisent and elk that are prayed on by wolves, lynxes and bears. Only when a reserve is inhabited by the complete faunal assemblage we can watch the interaction between the species properly. Otherwise, such as in the lack of predators or with several other species lacking, some species might be outcompeted by others. This might be the case with cattle at Oostvaardersplassen (more on that in an upcoming post).

Feral populations

This brings me to the next point: feral populations. Nowadays, in 2017, there are three main cattle populations that have a solid history of dedomestication: Chillingham cattle, Betizu and Heck cattle at Oostvaardersplassen. As for the first, today it is a breed represented by two herds that have a century-long history of natural breeding and strong selective pressure for resistance against the local climate and certain diseases. The owners of this special breed will certainly strive for maintaining their existence and I would be happy if single individuals would contribute to the “breeding-back” gene pool in some way (which is why I listed it among my list of alternative breeds for “breeding-back”). Regarding Betizu, this breed also has a century-long history of natural breeding and was not husbanded by humans, and even hunted. It would be interesting to maintain a feral population of this landrace somewhere in its habitat, and I would also like to see it contributing to the “breeding-back” gene pool (which is why it is on the list as well).
While the period the OVP Heck population has been existing is considerably smaller than in the former two cases, the initial morphological diversity was high, as much as the selective pressure due to the limited area size. Therefore the population has already experienced some considerable evolutionary process, which is why I hope this population will not disappear. Whatever is going to happen to Oostvaardersplassen, and even if the cattle will be finally outcompeted in the reserve by deer and horses, I hope that at least some of the cattle there will be saved in some way. However, my favoured scenario for this herd would be an expansion of the reserve, a boost of genetic diversity by adding new aurochs-like cattle (perhaps also in the form of pure individuals of primitive breeds), and best would be the introduction of predators (there are reasons to assume this would put some pressure from the cattle in particular).

As for feral cattle in general, I hope that by 2050 at least some of the aurochs-like populations will be in a state that can be considered feral.

This is my vision for aurochs-like cattle by 2050, and I am pretty confident that these goals can be achieved.


  1. Hi Daniel, where in Europe do you think we will be able to see a large enough reserve to contain the complete Holocene megafaunal community; Poland, the Carpathians, Hungary, the Rhodopes, Massif Central, North Iberia? I can only imagine that marginal and mountainous farmland will continue to be abandoned in the future and a large reserve could become a posibility. In order for locals to want to have such a reserve near them that could attract visitors, a reserve would need to have some areas where animals are seen at high densities and interacting with each other as in parts of Africa.

  2. And maybe African Forest Elephant acclimatising in the south of Spain as a proxy for the Straight-tusked Elephant and Indian Elephants acclimatising in the Rhodopes as a proxy for mammoths; there - I said it! ;)

    1. I really doubt that Indian elephants could survive there. Mammoths probably would not have lived in the rhodopes of the Holocene, it is not their biome, if any then Paleoloxodon would be found there. We don't know if extant elephants are ecologically equal to it.

  3. Ok, apologies Daniel, wishful thinking. Where in Europe in thirty years time do you think would be most likely to host the full suite of megaherbivores and predators?

  4. "Where in Europe in thirty years time do you think would be most likely to host the full suite of megaherbivores and predators?"

    Chernobyl exclusion zone?

    Most of European megafauna is already present there, including wisent (in small numbers) and wild horse (przewalski's horse - not sure about if it is the right type of horse - however, they have so far survived there).

  5. Ah yes, it has most animals apart from back bred cattle, will it be allowed to remain natural as the radiation drops and can it be protected from poaching?

  6. Hi Daniel. It will be interesting to know how and if new crispr technologies will be employed with back breeding selection. The two combined actions could really boost genetic diversity creating a real auroch genetic pool. What do you think about crispr?

    1. Hi, I don't really see a point in tampering around using CRISPR-cas9 on domestic cattle, but this technique (genome editing to be precise) bears the potential to create a genuine aurochs that is genuine in almost every respect. This is what I would try to focus on. I have a post on that upcoming.

  7. Great stuff, Daniel. Although we have less space available here in the UK, I've set out something similar in the form of New Natural Areas here:

    And here:

    Our UK Environment Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has described the above blog piece as 'fascinating' - so at least one senior government minister in Europe appears amenable to the idea of re-building megafauna populations.....

    Keep it up.