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Biology 103
2005 Final Paper
On Serendip

Breeding Back the Aurochs

Magdalena Michalak


M. Michalak

Bio 103—Prof. Grobstein

Web Paper #3


Breeding Back the Aurochs


            Our discussion of genetics got me thinking about the processes of breeding back animals to produce something similar to animals that have since gone extinct.  These experiments have been done with the aurochs, the quagga, and the tarpan.  I remember learning about these projects as a child and never hearing them brought up in a biology class, so I decided to take this opportunity explore.  I decided to focus on the aurochs since it seemed to be the only one of those three animals which caused a controversy in terms of being reintroduced to the wild.  I wanted to learn how close the back breeding had gotten to recreating the aurochs, what the motivation had been for the back breeding, and what the controversy was in the first place.

            The aurochs (Bos primigenius) was the predecessor of modern cattle that first appeared on earth around two million years ago in the area that is now India, spreading afterwards to Europe.  It is most commonly known through the many Paleolithic cave paintings(1) that exist of it.  These are what give modern scholars a fairly decent idea of what the aurochs might have looked like, and compared with skeletons and remains frozen in permafrost, create a fairly accurate depiction of what the aurochs' size, shape, and colour would have been.  Basically, it was a big cow—nearly 2m at the shoulder, and built vaguely like the love-child of the Spanish fighting bull, the gaur (Brahman cow), with a dash of Highland cow thrown in just to make it hardier.  It adapted to the Middle East, to continental Europe, and even to the cold British climate.  The abundant verdant vegetation in these northern lands was great for the aurochs, but unfortunately also great for humans who hunted them for food and sport.

            Despite the early demise of its contemporaries (such as the mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger, for example), the aurochs managed to survive for an impressively long time.  The last aurochs(2) was thought to have died in Poland in 1627(3), long after it had died out everywhere else.  Poland's extensive old-growth forests provided a safe haven, and the country's very early forestry initiatives (started as early as the 11th or 12th century) attempted to protect the dwindling population.  Nevertheless, the aurochs finally died out, most likely from a combination of factors including over-hunting, decreased grazing land thanks to domesticated cattle, and a lack of genetic diversity leading to weakened stock.

            In 1920, the Heck brothers, Heinz and Lutz, embarked on an attempt to back-breed the aurochs from cattle with aurochs-like qualities.  The brothers worked separately, one in Berlin and one in Munich, though only the Munich program survived World War II.  The animals this back-breeding produced, known as Heck cattle(4), look similar(5) to the aurochs of Paleolithic times and are often seen in zoos nowadays.  They're generally smaller, though work is still being done to increase their size and weight since aurochs were thought to be around 1,000kg (half the size of a rhinoceros).  There have been successful programs to release Heck cattle back into the wild, most notably in the Netherlands where there is absolutely no human interference.  Programs still monitored by people exist in parts of Germany and France.

            The breeding programs were supported by the Nazi Party during the time of World War II as part of the Nazi propaganda to create an "Aryan" historical mythology.  This answers my question as to why there were attempts to breed them back; apparently only a glorious wild cow such as the aurochs was good enough for the supposed Aryan race.  After WWII, the emphasis shifted away from propaganda and to wildland management.  Current programs are geared towards introducing Heck cattle back into the wild to refill the ecological niche that the aurochs would have occupied.  This is where the previously-mentioned controversy develops: nobody really knows what niche the aurochs filled.  Some people claim that the aurochs, like the endangered European Bison, roamed the plains and grasslands.  Others claim that the aurochs inhabited the forests and marshes.  Delving into this, I found out that in order for grasslands to be maintained, they need to be "mowed" and resown by grazers which don't just feed on grasses (the way domesticated cattle do) because this helps to keep the population of shrubs and trees down and actually creates plains.  Domestic cattle aren't hardy enough to survive the harsh elements on their own, and European Bison are endangered and can't handle all the central European grasslands on their own.  Critics of the Heck cattle program state that emphasis should be placed on conserving the European Bison instead of attempting to introduce a new species into the mix.

            From what I was able to find, I think that the theory of the aurochs inhabiting the forests and marshlands is more likely than that of them inhabiting the grasslands, at least in Europe.  Their coloring wouldn't help them blend in on the open plain; their relatively short fur would have needed the extra insulation that low, densely-grown forests would have provided in the winter.  Looking at pictures of Heck cattle, I don't really see much similarity; everything from the horn shape to the coat to the size is off, as well as the build in general.  Heck cattle just look like a combination of Angus and Highland cattle.  While I think that breeding back is an interesting exercise in some cases, I can see the release of Heck cattle into the wild causing more harm than good, specifically by encroaching on bison territory and taking over the bison's grazing lands.  Still, breeding back a breed that's hardy and introducing it into places that no longer have a large, native grazer could be very beneficial for that type of place.  I think we need to understand a lot more about the aurochs, though, before we can even attempt to recreate them in any convincing fashion—and then, we'd have to ask ourselves what the motivations are.








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