Will Aurochs, a Cattle Species Found in Ancient Cave Paintings, be Resurrected?
A group of researchers is looking to resurrect aurochs, a species of wild cattle which disappeared in the first half of the 17th century. It's another attempt to bring this animal back to life - Nazi scientists once tried to accomplish the feat as well.
According to the Washington Post, a group of scientists, historians, and ranchers are looking to resurrect the species of wild cattle that is related to the domesticated cattle seen today.
The last auroch died in 1627 in Poland. The animal was tall and heavy, with long, long, forward-curving horns. It was a dangerous animal, even to the cave lion, the largest of its predators. The animal was admired by Julius Caesar, who described them in The Gallic Wars as being "a little below the elephant in size.''
The hunting horn made from the horn of the last aurochs bull that belonged to King Sigismund III of Poland. (Public Domain)
Aurochs are often associated with a scene in a painting on a cavern wall at Lascaux, France from 17,000 years ago. The scene also depicted a Megaloceros. All of the animals which appear in a painting, including the giant deer, the cave lion, and the aurochs, are extinct.
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The Dutch nonprofit group named Stichting Taurus is providing financial support to the TaurOs Project, which is a partnership of ecologists, geneticists, historians, and cattle breeders. They are seeking to re-create the aurochs by crossbreeding modern cattle in a process known as back breeding. They say that laboratory-based genetic engineering is not required for the task. The process they've chosen instead is the selective breeding of animals that exist today to get as close as possible to their now-extinct ancestors.
A painting by Heinrich Harder showing an aurochs fighting off a Eurasian wolf pack. (Public Domain)
As Peter Maas wrote for the Sixth Extinction: "Back-breeding is possible because much of the genetic material of the extinct wild ancestors and subspecies survived in the domestic progeny or in surviving related subspecies. This can result in animals that resemble the original extinct ancestor or an extinct subspecies."
The TaurOs Project was created as a part of a conservation movement which wants to “rewild” and restore large areas of land as much as possible to their pre-human state. Their goals include reintroducing key animals and plants that have disappeared. The project is led by Ronal Goderie, an ecologist and author of the book ''The Aurochs: Born to Be Wild''.
In 2008, they started their attempt at breeding the aurochs via their descendants which share characteristics with the lost species: large stature, long legs, a slender and athletic build, horns curving forward, and black coats.
Restoration of the aurochs based on a bull skeleton from Lund and a cow skeleton from Cambridge, with characteristic external features of the aurochs. (CC BY SA 3.0)
In a talk with Washington Post Goderie said:
“What you see already in the second generation is that the coloration of the animal is very aurochs-like. The bulls are black and have an eel stripe [along the spine]. They’re already higher on the legs. What’s more complicated is the size and shape of the horns. I would say that in some cases you can see an individual animal is 75 percent of where we need to get a…We think in six, seven generations we will get a stabilized group of Taurus cattle. That will take us another seven to 10 years.”
A first generation cross bull from the TaurOs Project. (CC BY SA 3.0)
It's not the first time people have tried to bring back the aurochs. In the 1930s, Nazi commander Hermann Goering asked geneticists to recreate the extinct species. Heintz and Lutz Heck started to work on the possible re-creation of various animals including the aurochs. According to the notes left by Nazi scientists, they used a similar idea of developing a genetically engineered species by back-breeding from the aurochs’ descendants.
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In their attempt, they crossed Spanish fighting bulls with Highland cattle, along with primitive breeds from Corsica and Hungary. As a result, they received muscular cows with massive horns.The project of resurrecting the aurochs failed however, because both brothers died during World War II. The Heck bull was the product of their failed attempt, and is an animal with big horns, which measures about 1.4 meters (4.59 ft.) in height and weighs up to 600 kg (1322.77 lbs).
Heck cattle: the first attempt to breed a look-alike of the aurochs with modern cattle. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Beth Shapiro, an expert in ancient DNA and a biologist at the University of California in Santa Cruz, says that resurrecting extinct animals is both terrifying and exhilarating. In an interview with the Smithsonian she shared her thoughts that creating the possibilities for resurrecting animals is necessary. With the knowledge of recreating animals from their DNA code, she argued that we may bring to life not only woolly mammoths, bisons, dodos, and aurochs, but also black and white rhinos, which disappeared recently.
Featured Image: Aurochs in a Lascaux cave animal painting. Source: CC BY SA 3.0