Bringing back extinct species - continuing progress towards restoring the Aurochs

Cave paintings of ancient cattle breed aurochs at Lascaux, France
CC BY-SA 3.0 Prof saxx - Own work

Early conservation efforts failed to save the wild aurochs, a massive horned bovine that once roamed across Europe and Asia. The last aurochs died reportedly in 1627 in spite of protection by order of the Polish royal family, which offered incentives to citizens who helped the remaining herd survive harsh winters. Only fossils, stories, and primitive cave paintings remained as reminders of the noble beasts' grand reign.

For some years now, a group of ecologists and scientists have been working to bring the aurochs back. The effort stems from observations that smaller modern cattle breeds are poorly adapted for ‘rewilding’, or returning areas set aside for the purpose to their native state. The agriculturally adapted breeds cannot graze as effectively in areas of heavy brush, and have few defenses against natural predators such as European wolves.

The group hit on the idea of reversing the selective breeding that resulted in modern agricultural stock. Many of the genes of the aurochs remain hidden in the DNA of modern animals, especially in the more primitive 'heritage' breeds preserved in various parts of Europe. Project TaurOs was born. The goal: to recreate an animal as similar as possible to the aurochs by bringing out these hidden genes, without the use of genetic engineering.

Since the project was first introduced to the public, the team has continued to cross-breed primitive cattle species most closely resembling aurochs, in order to select for more aurochs-type characteristics in a new strain of cattle. A calf born of a Hungarian Grey cow and a Sayaguesa bull just before Christmas establishes the start of another breeding plan seeking the mythical beast of Europe's past. Experts are trying to expedite the program by constraining the size of the breeding herds, but they estimate it will take at least ten years to get to a genetic profile akin to the aurochs.

They are assisted by scientific studies, examining the genetic similarity between aurochs DNA and existing cows as well as on the flow of genetic material from wild aurochs by interbreeding with early domesticated cattle. This new scientific insight was made possible by the sequencing of the full aurochs genome from a fossil in 2015.

This project sparks disparate opinions. On the one hand, how do we know bringing an old cow into a new world will work out for the cow or the ecosystem we are trying to restore, much less what could happen if the breed escapes the boundaries of rewilded parks set aside for their welfare? On the other hand, the thought of undoing the damage mankind has done to the balance or the original ecosystem entices visionaries to attempt this scheme.

Europe has achieved documented success in rewilding efforts and the ongoing re-introduction of the nearly extinct European bison, recovered from populations remaining in zoos, offers a precedent for the more ambitious hope that the magnificent aurochs can return from extinction to once again roam the Eurasian continent, even if only in areas reserved for it.

Tags: Animals | Cattle | Extinction

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