9 1/3 months
The aurochs is the ancestor of all modern cattle. Prior to its extinction in the early 17th century, it roamed across much of Europe and Asia for about 2 million years, playing a key role in maintaining a mixed, semi-open landscape made up of diverse ecosystems. It was central to the development of agriculture, which began some 10,000 years ago, but the growing prevalence of hunting, habitat loss and hybridisation with domestic cattle in recent millennia caused its population to decline dramatically and restricted its range to eastern Europe, where it ultimately became extinct.
Much of our knowledge of the animal’s appearance, behaviour, and ecology derives from archaeological remains, prehistoric cave paintings, such as those in Lascaux and Chauvet, and 16th century accounts of the last surviving population in Poland. Such evidence indicates that the animal was long-legged in comparison with modern cattle, measuring up to 1.8 metres in height, and was strong and agile, with long, angular horns for defence against predators, such as wolves. It was Europe’s third-heaviest land mammal after the woolly mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros, with adult males weighing over 1,000 kg.
The aurochs probably originated in India during the Pleistocene epoch, approximately 2 million years ago. Its population later spread to other parts of Asia, as well as to the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. For much of its history, it lived alongside other interglacial fauna like the European water buffalo (Bubalus murrensis) in a variable climate, migrating to the Mediterranean area in cold periods, and travelling north in warm spells.
The aurochs was first domesticated about 10,000 years ago in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. The two major domestic taxa, Bos taurus (taurine cattle) and Bos indicus (zebu cattle), emerged from independent domestication events which involved genetically distinct wild aurochs populations in different geographical regions. These domestic cattle became common throughout Europe as farmers migrated across the continent, and are believed to have interbred sporadically with wild aurochs populations, and each other, along the way. Therefore, the genetic makeup of European domestic cattle has been determined by three factors: human migration, cross-breeding and gene flow with the aurochs.
Over the last 10,000 years, continuous human selection in favour of milk and meat production and physical endurance has given rise to almost 1,000 breeds of domestic cattle. As a by-product of this selection process, certain characteristics needed for survival in the wild have disappeared. Nevertheless, some breeds have retained ancestral features, such as Holstein Friesian cattle, which possess a similar horn shape to their ancestor, and Jersey and Brown Swiss bulls, which have a dark coat typical of the male aurochs.
By the 13th century, the range of the aurochs had been significantly reduced as a result of hunting and habitat degradation. The last wild population survived in Poland’s Forest of Jacktorów, where it was managed for centuries and protected by law. This protection led to a fall in hunting, though the nobility retained their privilege to hunt the animal due to its rarity. The population was carefully monitored until the late 16th century, when concern for its conservation began to fade under the reign of King Zygmunt I and his successor Zygmunt August. As a result, the aurochs was allowed to decline further, suffering from diseases transmitted by livestock and competing for resources with domestic cattle, until the last animal died in 1627.
Behaviour and Ecology
The aurochs inhabited a variety of ecosystems throughout Europe, including swamps, forests (with the exception of boreal forests), steppes and mountains. Its preferred habitats were sedge marshes, containing Magnocaricion and other species of vegetation, and damp deciduous forests, where it competed with other specialised grazers, such as wild horses and European bison. It fed primarily on grasses, but also ate acorns during the autumn and the branches of trees and bushes in winter.
The accounts of gamekeepers and eye-witnesses from the 16th century shed some light on the animal’s behaviour. Members of the last surviving population were observed to form two distinct types of group: one comprising females (or cows), their calves and young males, and another made up of older males (or bulls). While some bulls lived solitary lives, in the mating season (August – September) they moved into the mixed groups in order to mate with cows, and sometimes fought with other males. Calves were born in May and June, all with a chestnut brown coat which was retained in adulthood by cows, but in bulls turned to a darker brown or black with a pale stripe down the spine. Other physical differences between the sexes (also called sexual dimorphism) became apparent at sexual maturity: for example, males grew to a larger size than females, and developed longer horns, sometimes measuring over 1 metre in length.
Like other large grazers, the aurochs inadvertently created opportunities for other species of animal, plant and insect to thrive through its activities. While grazing and trampling, it made space for pioneer plants to establish themselves in disturbed soil, and sometimes left a trail in tall vegetation which could be used as cover by smaller animals. Deer probably sought protection from wolves in herds of aurochs, and birds built their nests from its thick fur. In addition, various species of dung beetle, such as Aphodius prodromus, and fungi, like Peziza bovina, benefitted from the herbivore’s droppings, while scavengers fed on the placentas of cows which had recently given birth.
In recent years, programmes aiming to create an animal with aurochs-like behaviour, physiology and genetics have commenced. These projects involve crossing cattle breeds which retain primitive characteristics, such as Iberian or Podolian cattle, and then comparing reconstructions with the complete genome of a 6,700 year old aurochs fossil. It is hoped that the creation of a wild aurochs replica and its introduction into European wildlife reserves will help to restore the biodiversity and resilience of ecosystems, boost ecotourism and support local communities.
In order to ensure the success of back-breeding programmes, more knowledge of the genetic variation of the aurochs before its domestication is required, as only one specimen has been fully sequenced thus far. In addition, the development of technologies capable of identifying domestic genes with greater precision would allow for more control over wild genes and facilitate the creation of a more accurate reconstruction of the aurochs.