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Aurochs

The Aurochs is a giant extinct species of wild ox that was once found in Asia, Europe and North Africa. They are believed to be the ancestors of the domestic cattle. In modern day cattle, a lot of the breeds share Aurochs’ characteristics. During the Neolithic Revolution, which took place during the early Holocene, there were two aurochs domestication events – one was related to Eurasian subspecies, leading to taurine cattle; while the other one was related to Indian subspecies, leading to zebu cattle.

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Scientific classification

Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Mammalia
Order Artiodactyla
Family Bovidae
Subfamily Bovinae
Genus Bos
Species B. primigenius
Scientific name Bos primigenius

Quick Facts

Size Bulls – 155 to 180 cm shoulder height.Cows – 135 to 155 cm shoulder height.
Weight Around 1500 pounds.
Horn Pointed forward and then curved inwards; broad and elongated.
Horn size 80 cm in length and between 10 to20 cm in diameter.
Coat color Brownish black. Calves were reddish brown.
Lifespan 15 – 20 years in the wild.
Diet Grasses, grass-like plants, herbs, tree fruits, acorns and leaves of trees, grass-like plants and herbs. bushes.
Closest relatives European cattle breeds, Spanish fighting cattle and the zebu breeds.

Evolution

During the Pliocene epoch, the cold climate triggered an expansion of the open grasslands. It helped in the evolution of large grazers like wild bovines. It is believed that Bos acutifrons, which is also an extinct cattle species, was the ancestor of Bos primigenius. Around 270000 years ago, they migrated to the European continent. During the Pleistocene, they reached several parts of West Africa. The oldest fossil remains, dated 2 million years, were found in India.

Subspecies

There are three recognized subspecies of Aurochs.

The Eurasian aurochs (Bos primigenius primigenius)

This subspecies was once found in the steppes of Central Asia, Europe and Siberia. They were an important part of the Eurasian megafauna, with whom they declined by the end of the Pleistocene period.

The Eurasian specimens were domesticated into modern taurine cattle breeds in the Middle East and the Far East around sixth millennium BC. Hunting this species became a privilege for nobles and royal households. By the thirteenth century, this species existed in little numbers in the east Europe.

They are also known to have migrated from Italy to Sicily via a land bridge. Later, when the bridge disappeared, the Aurochs found in Sicily evolved 20% smaller compared to its mainland relatives.

The Indian aurochs (Bos primigenius namadicus)

Researchers believe that the Indian subspecies was the first to appear on earth – around 2 million years ago. Fossil remains suggest that there were wild Aurochs apart from those domesticated ones – the zebu cattle. Wild Aurochs’ fossil remains have been found from Karnataka, India.

The North African aurochs (Bos primigenius africanus)

They were found in the shrub-land and woodland of North Africa. It is believed that they descended from the Aurochs specimens found in the Middle East. Even though they were genetically distinct from their European counterparts, they were morphologically similar. The might have gone extinct before the Middle Ages. Depictions suggest that they had a saddle marking on their back.

Habitat

There is no unanimity when it comes to their habitat. Some researchers believe that their habitat can be compared to that of the African wild buffalo. However, some believe that they preferred grazing in the open grassland, along with other large herbivores. However, like domestic cattle, they inhabited wet areas. With the steadily growing human population, their range became fragmented. And, during the last century of its existence, they inhabited remote forests or marshes.

Ecology and Behavior

They are believed to have formed herd at least one time a year. Their mating season was late summer or early autumn. They also engaged in battles that often took a violent turn and led to death. They were swift and fast. At times, the Aurochs could get very dangerous and aggressive when teased.

Calves were born in spring. They used to stay with the mother till they become strong enough to keep up with the rest of the herd on their grazing grounds. Calves were vulnerable to predators like wolves, lions and tigers.

Interesting Facts

  • A Mitochondrial DNA research shows that all domesticated taurine cattle developed from around 80 wild female specimens in the Near East. Genetic studies have shown that Europe domestic cattle carry a Near Eastern origin.
  • The European aurochs was neither domesticated, nor did they interbreed with the Near Eastern cattle.
  • The “Turano-Mongolian” cattle now found in Mongolia, Korea, Japan and parts of China may interpret a fourth domestication event (third event among Bos taurus aurochs). Some believe that this group has deviated from the Near East group 30000 – 35000 years ago.
  • Aurochs is often mistaken as wisent (the European bison)
  • The last recorded Eurasian aurochs, a female specimen, died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland from natural causes. No great measures were taken to save this animal even when they were found in small numbers.
  • Aurochs were found in great numbers in Europe during the Roman Empire. And, they were hugely popular as a battle beast in the Roman arenas.
  • Scientists have thought of cloning this animal for a long time. Their goal was not just to bring back an animal that looks like Aurochs, but genetically as close as possible.

Domestication

Archaeological evidence suggests that domestication of this species took place in several regions of its native range, most importantly in the Indian subcontinent, between 10000–8000 years ago. It gave rise to two major domestic taxa found today – the humpless Bos taurus (taurine) and the humped Bos indicus (zebu). A third domestication event took place in Africa giving rise to Sanga cattle, a zebu-like cattle with no back hump. It is believed that they occurred from a cross between humped-zebus with taurine cattle breeds. There are evidences that these cattle were domesticated in Africa independently. The zebu and taurine bloodlines were brought in the past few hundred years.

Genetic evidence shows that Aaurochs was domesticated in India and also in northern parts of Africa.

Museum Specimens

Aurochs fossil specimens of can be found at the National Museum of Denmark, Natuurmuseum Groningen (Groningen, the Netherlands), the Zeeuws Museum (Middelburg, the Netherlands). Rosensteinmuseum in Stuttgart, Germany, holds an Aurochs skull.

Published on July 20th 2015 by under Mammals.
Article was last reviewed on 20th August 2015.

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