When looking through Walter Frisch’s Der Auerochs (2010) I found a photo of the Heck bull Albatros in perfect profile view (the photo is © Walter Frisch, I hope it is ok for Mr. Frisch that I use it here). Let us have some fun with it!
A profile view photo is pretty useful for a direct comparison with the aurochs. When using a single Heck individual, it is always important to pick one that is a fair representative of the breed. For example, it would not be fair to pick one of the hyper-massive dachshund bulls that are still found in the breed that are not nearly of the same quality as the mean, or to choose an individual that is considerably better than the average. I think that Albatros is a pretty fair choice. It is from the Wörth/Steinberg line bred by Walter Frisch, which is remarkable for having large and well-shaped horns (some of them are excellent, take a look at them here). The Wörth lineage is, speaking of body morphology and size, very typical for Heck cattle on the other hand, so Albatros is very representative of the breed.
I took my most recent reconstruction of an aurochs bull as a comparison. I introduced this reconstruction in this post and I consider it pretty accurate. So I copied the reconstruction and the photo of Albatros next to each other to same scale. For Albatros, I used a withers height of 140cm, which is pretty average for Heck cattle (bulls of the Wörth lineage are sometimes claimed to reach 160cm, but I do not consider this plausible for Heck cattle, especially since I saw the herd myself), and for the aurochs I used 170cm withers height – 170cm is the mean withers height found within this species. There are populations where bulls reached only about 150cm but also giants with a withers height of about 190cm or more (see How big was the aurochs really?), so choosing 170cm seems fair to me.
Here you see the comparison of both animals in flesh and below that a comparison of both skeletons (the photo of the Heck bull is suitable to deduce the skeleton of the living animal, it is not as precise as an X-ray but an approximation based on anatomical knowledge – I already did this with several cattle individuals on Comparing skeletons with skeletons). I go over the differences both in morphology and behaviour.
Size.In absolute height, the Heck bull is of course smaller than the aurochs by about 30cm. However, in mass, both animals might be equal. Massive Heck bulls reach a weight of about 900kg , which is probably also the upper weight range for aurochs bulls (more on that in an upcoming post). So technically speaking, both animals have the same mass, but distributed differently – an aurochs was built way higher and shorter than most domestic bulls.
Proportions and skeleton.This is where we have considerable differences. First of all, the trunk of the Heck bull is elongated while the size/length of the limbs shrunk – the ratio of the distance from the hooves to the shoulder blade (note: not withers height) and to the end of the pelvis is exactly 1:1 in the aurochs, and 1:1,13 in the Heck bull. The head size also shrunk dramatically, as much as – most likely – also relative brain volume. The skull shape is clearly paedomorphic – it is shortened, especially the snout, and the eyes are enlarged. Those changes in the skeleton and proportions are typical consequences of domestication that we see in nearly all domestic mammal species that have been domesticated. Also, the length of the processus spinosi in the shoulder area (“hump”) is greatly reduced in the domestic bull – while the spines go well beyond the shoulder blade in the aurochs, they are actually shorter than the shoulder blade in the Heck bull. This is also typical of domestic cattle while humps are universal for wild bovini. The comparison of the two skeletons shows the dramatic differences in the skeletal build of an aurochs bull and a domestic bull.
Soft-tissue anatomy. The muscling of the Heck bull is reduced compared to a wild bovine, which is especially obvious in the pelvic area. Also, the size of the intestinum increased dramatically, causing a huge belly compared to the wildtype. All in all, the soft tissue morphology of this Heck bull is clearly domestic and as such very reminiscent of what we see in dogs with a certain hormonal disorder (cushing syndrome, see this post). The skin is more flappy, especially the enlarged dewlap, and also the scrotum is elongated.
Horns.The horn volume (length and thickness) is well within the range of an aurochs. The orientation of the horns relative to the snout as well – in Albatros, the horns curve away from the skull in an 75° angle. The literature gives an average horn curvature of 50-70°, but in reality the spectrum is larger (the largest angle I have seen so far is about 90° in the Vig bull and the narrowest 40° in the oldest aurochs skull). The only difference between Albatros’ horns and that of an aurochs is that the curvature (the “primigenius spiral”) is not intense enough. The horns should curve more inwards. A less intense curvature or a tendency of the horns curving more outwards is also a classic domestication trait for bovines.
Colour. The colour setting and thus the responsible alleles seem identical to that of the aurochs, with two exceptions – the sexual dimorphism (not only in colour) is considerably reduced, which shows in the light brown shade on the dorsal area of the Heck bull, and it is from a population that also has alleles for domestic colour variants such as white spots or colour dilutions.
We have no living aurochs to compare the behaviour with, so we take the typical behaviour of a wild bovine as a reference.
The fight/flight reaction in this bull is greatly reduced. It is, compared to a wild bovine, very agreeable, docile, tame, trainable and its activity level is lethargic compared to the wildtype.
Comparing the Heck bull trait by trait with an aurochs, it shows that this animal is actually as domestic as can be, and the similarities to the aurochs are limited to colour and horns*. But that is not to say that the bull Albatros or the breed Heck cattle is a failure from the “breeding-back” perspective, not at all. One could analyse any domestic cattle breed the same way and would get similar results. Domestic cattle are simply comparably removed from their ancestor after 8.000 years of domestication. For details, see the article What breeding back can achieve.
* I am aware of the fact that this Heck bull is probably able to sustain itself in the wild, which is also true of all landraces and also many derived breeds, and it would also show the same social behaviour repertoire as the aurochs (most likely), which is also true of all living cattle.
- Bunzel-Drüke, Finck, Kämmer, Luick, Reisinger, Riecken, Riedl, Scharf & Zimball: Wilde Weiden: Praxisleitfaden für Ganzjahresbeweidung in Naturschutz und Landschaftsentwicklung