The Once-Extinct Aurochs May Soon Roam Europe Again
After a decade, scientists are getting close to bringing back the massive wild cattle.
When the Swedish armies descended upon Poland in 1655, they laid waste to the kingdom and pillaged whatever they could. Among the spoils stolen from the city of Jaktorów was one of King Sigismund III’s most prized possessions: an ornate drinking horn, longer than a grown man’s arm and as thick as an elephant tusk. Although the artistry was exquisite, the horn’s true value had little to do with the metal wrapped around its circumference. In life, the horn had belonged to the last aurochs bull, who died in 1621.
Today, the horn, which resides in Stockholm’s Royal Armoury, is one of the few surviving remnants of the wild cattle that roamed Eurasia and North Africa for more than 250,000 years. Like so many of Europe’s megafauna, the aurochs met their end at the hands of humans. Their horns were such coveted hunting trophies that by the Middle Ages, their numbers had already fallen. The species officially went extinct in 1627, when the last cow died in Poland.
Standing six feet tall and weighing more than 3,000 pounds, with horns more than 4.5 feet from tip to tip, these mighty herbivores were once a sight to behold. Paleolithic people painted them on the walls of caves around the region. The Celts associated them with Cernunnos, a god of the underworld. The ancient Romans pitted their finest gladiators against them. “These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull,” wrote Julius Caesar in Commentarii de bello Gallico. “Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied.”
For more than a decade now, scientists have been seeking to bring back this keystone species—and they’re getting close. While the aurochs themselves may be gone, their genes live on in most modern European cattle breeds. Somewhere along the way, our Neolithic ancestors in Iran and what is now Turkey managed to domesticate aurochs, rather than simply hunt them for food. The Chillingham white cows of northern England, the Spanish fighting bulls of the Iberian Peninsula, and the Chianina of Tuscany all carry substantial portions of their DNA. Since 2008, the Tauros Programme in the Netherlands has been working to back-breed aurochs. The Auerrind Project, which launched in 2013, currently has five breeding herds in Germany. Both organizations share research and, occasionally, breeding stock.
“Looking at the calves from this year, especially the bulls, they have a lot of potential,” says Claus Kropp, a trained archeologist and leader at the Auerrind Project. “We’re really on the right track. If we continue a careful selection for the next 10 years, we could potentially have a stable population by then.”
Indeed, the third generation of animals currently grazing in southwestern Germany look an awful lot like their Neolithic predecessors. The largest of the bulls clocks in at just shy of six feet and more than 2,200 pounds, with horns that rival those ancient skulls in size. Most of the bovines in question are a mix of Sayaguesa, Watusi, Hungarian steppe cattle, Maremmana, and Chianina genes.
Fortunately, the Auerrind Project has a large amount of data on the animals they are striving to recreate. Extensive written documentation and illustrations paint a clear picture of the size and appearance of Europe’s aurochs. Along with historical records, the Auerrind Project has the fully sequenced DNA of three aurochs. Thanks to data obtained by DNA testing bones at the University of Kiel and radiocarbon dating of bone material found in the Upper Rhine Valley, the scientists even have a sense of the genetic variations in different regional populations of aurochs.
“We know the DNA of this animal and we can compare that with the modern-day cattle DNA, which can yield some pretty surprising results,” Kropp says. For instance, the Holstein, otherwise known as the humble dairy cow, shares about 95 percent of its DNA with an auroch. With older breeds, that percentage is even higher. “The distance from the aurochs to the Pajuna cattle from Spain is just 0.12 percent, so there is more than a 98 percent overlap.”
Genetic distance isn’t the only factor when it comes to successful back-breeding; scientists also have to look at phenotypic traits. A number of heritage cattle breeds still visually resemble aurochs, even if none is a perfect match. For instance, those Spanish Sayaguesa cattle are a dead-ringer when it comes to coloring, but have the wrong horn size, while the Italian Chianina boast enormous horns, but with shaggy, white coats.
“When you take all the breeds that are supposedly close from a genetic side, but also from a phenotypical point of view, you have a chance to maybe get to results in quite a fast amount of time,” Kropp says. Speedy results in genetic terms translates to years, given that a pregnant heifer spends 10 months gestating. Still, that’s soon enough to start considering the potential ramifications.
Bringing species back from extinction is often a contentious business. It’s also an increasingly urgent topic, given that most experts believe we’re living through a mass extinction. By some estimates, human negligence robbed us of half the earth’s biodiversity in the last half century.
The Auerrind Project and the Tauros Programme are far from the only organizations trying to bring back species from oblivion. Last year, a startup called Colossal scored $15 million in initial funding to try and bring back wooly mammoths using CRISPR technology. The Australian Lazarus Project has been focusing on a species of frog that birthed its young through its mouth, while the Passenger Pigeon Project hopes to bring back the birds that were once so numerous that their migration once blocked out the sun. Ever since scientists genetically sequenced the Tasmanian tiger, which died out in 1933, using a set of teeth in the Australian Museum, they’ve been talking about trying to clone them back to life.
Much like with still-living endangered species, time and financial resources in de-extinction often go towards charismatic megafauna. Yet Kropp and his colleagues insist that their focus on aurochs isn’t simply because they’re, well, cool. In contrast to cloning mammoths and other species, back-breeding programs are decidedly lower in risk. For one thing, there is no danger of reawakening ancient pathogens. For another, scientists have little concept of how the Tasmanian tiger or wooly mammoth behaved; with no living populations to draw on, teaching herds of clones to survive in the wild is a daunting task.
More importantly, in ecological terms, aurochs haven’t been gone long enough for nature to fill the gaping hole left in their wake. Like their counterparts on the North American and African continents, large grazing herbivores such as European bison and aurochs played a critical role in biodiversity.
“A grazed landscape with large herbivores looks very different from a modern meadow from an industrial agricultural company,” Kropp says. The Auerrind Project has been closely monitoring both the flora and fauna in controlled environments with their bovines. “Even in these small environments, the biodiversity is exploding even within a couple of years. I don’t think it’s by chance that our first grazing site was the first sighting of the beaver again.”
Both the Auerrind Project and the Tauros Programme are part of the European Rewilding Network, which is coordinated by Rewilding Europe, a nonprofit which has been reintroducing large grazing animals, like European bison, and supporting the comeback of other wildlife species such as lynx, elk, and wolves around the continent. Thanks in large part to the foundation’s efforts, European bison, which were once all but wiped out, have increased in numbers to more than 7,000 over the last decade. More than 12,000 wolves—more than in the United States—now inhabit Europe, including Iberian wolves in Portugal and Italian grey wolves in the Alps. At the core of the whole project is the European Wildlife Bank, which relies on large herbivores to restore habitats and usher in the return of other species.
“We often call grazers ‘landscape engineers,’ because they play a vital role in shaping landscapes and driving natural processes,” says Laurien Holtjer, head of communications at Rewilding Europe. By disrupting forest growth, these mammals created varied terrain, all the while fertilizing the ground and distributing seeds with their droppings. “The natural disturbance of large grazers in low, natural numbers play a pivotal role in restoring mosaics of vegetation [and] stimulating more biodiversity.”
But reintroducing large animals is not without its problems and pushback. Both politicians and farmers often resist rewilding and its inherent disruption. Wolves in particular have drawn all sorts of ire, despite clear evidence that they’re a boon to healthy ecosystems. In 2017, the first European bison to make its way into Germany in 250 years was almost immediately shot dead. Once a breeding population of modern-day aurochs exists, the challenge will be convincing humans to live with them. “With wildlife coming back, we also need to ensure that we learn again how to live with them,” Holtjer says. “And in such a way that people benefit from wildlife returning, for example through tourism and wildlife watching.”
“If you do it right, of course, coexistence can be possible,” Kropp insists. While the Auerrind Project’s breeding population is not meant for domestication, they’re going to great lengths to avoid creating animals that might attack humans. That’s why Spanish fighting bulls, which bear a striking physical resemblance to aurochs, aren’t in the mix.
Also noticeably absent in the Auerrind Project’s stock are Heck cattle, the striking, aggressive breed created in the 1920s by two German zoo directors, Heinz and Lutz Heck. Despite the lack of modern-day knowledge of genetics, the Heck brothers both claimed to have recreated aurochs through back-breeding. Heinz even wrote, “The wild bull, the aurochs, lives again.” Disturbingly, these early attempts at creating aurochs dovetailed with the fascist politics of the time. Lutz in particular, who was a member of the Nazi Party, convinced Hermann Göring that the return of ancient European beasts like aurochs and tarpan, or wild horses, fit with the the National Socialist Party’s ideological push to recreate an imagined European past.
Genetically speaking, the Heck cattle are still a far cry from aurochs. A small number of their surviving descendants can be found in Oostvaardersplassen, an experimental rewilding area in the Netherlands. Both Dutch and German scientists are, understandably, quick to distance any current efforts from this dark period in European history. Back-breeding any species is not about misguided attempts at nationalism, but rather about an attempt to restore balance to environments devastated by humans.
“What is unique to our project is that we’re coming from that museum background,” Kropp says. “We have a strong viewpoint on the educational side. We want to inform the public why these large herbivores play an important role in these ecosystems.”
So far, the Auerrind Project’s efforts at promoting ecotourism are going well. Since the project is connected with the Lauresham Laboratory for Experimental Archeology in the UNESCO Global Geopark Bergstraße-Odenwald, part of its mission is to showcase what a Medieval European landscape would have looked like. On guided cycling tours, visitors have the chance to see some of the ecosystem that was all but lost.
“It’s not hard to impress people when you have these really large bulls in front of you,” Kropp says. Most of these gawkers have never experienced the sense of wonder that the presence of these giants evokes. “You actually have that safari feeling. It’s something they wouldn’t expect from our landscapes anymore. You don’t see these really wild animals anymore. Most of our large herbivores and carnivores have been gone for so long.”
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