Living Aurochs: The Case for Wild Cattle

banteng-auroch-bos-javanicus-bull
Banteng bull – the closest wild relative of the extinct aurochs.

The wild bovine once known as Aurochs or Urus Bos primigenius went the way of the dodo and all that remains of them today is ancient European rock art and classical literature and mere shadows of wild bravado in the form of their domesticated cattle descendants.  But what if at least some of their genetics survived in other wild bovines?  What if the aurochs was not a distinct bovine species, but rather a super-species together with the wild cattle or banteng Bos javanicus of Southeast Asia?

The aurochs, urus or ure is an extinct wild bovine of massive proportions that once inhabited North Africa, Europe and Asia (excluding Southeast Asia).  The species survived in a wild, untamed and undomesticated state until 1627 when the last known individual died in the Jaktorów Forest in Poland.  However some traits of the wild aurochs have managed to survive in populations of domesticated cattle which descended from either the Eurasian subspecies leading to taurine-type cattle or the Indian subspecies leading to zebu-type cattle.

In size the proportions and body shape of the aurochs were strikingly different from modern cattle breeds and were comparable to European bison Bison bonasus and strikingly similar, even homogeneous, to the banteng Bos javanicus.  In contrast to domesticated cattle breeds, the legs of wild aurochs were considerably longer and more slender, resulting in a shoulder height that nearly equalled their trunk length.  The skull, fashioning large horns in bulls were similar to that of the banteng.  As with the banteng (and closely related kouprey Bos sauveli) the body shape of the aurochs was athletic, and especially in bulls, showed a strongly expressed neck and shoulder musculature.  Like banteng, sexual dimorphism was strongly expressed between males and females with cows being significantly smaller than bulls.  Even in carrying cows, the udder was small and hardly visible from the side in common with that of other wild bovines, including banteng, kouprey, and gaur Bos gaurus.  Overall, the skeletal morphology of the aurochs was remarkably similar to the banteng.

Similarly, in external appearance the coat colour of the aurochs (as reconstructed from historical and contemporary depictions) was strikingly homogeneous with that of the banteng, being relatively uniform throughout their wide range.  Like the banteng, aurochs calves were born a chestnut colour.  With maturity bull calves would later change their coat colour to a very deep brown or black, with a white eel stripe running down the spine, while cows retained the buff reddish-brown colour.

“…those animals which are called uri.  These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, colour, and shape of a bull.  Their strength and speed are extraordinary…These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them.  The young men harden themselves with this exercise, and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise.  But not even when take very young can they be rendered familiar to men and tamed.  The size, shape and appearance of their horns differ much from the horns of our oxen.  These they anxiously seek after, and bind at the tips with silver, and use as cups at their most sumptuous entertainments.”  –  Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico

As the aurochs numbers dwindled their population sustained further pressures by becoming the hunting sport of nobility.  So their population was decimated until the last individual died in the Jaktorów Forest in Poland in 1627, and the species slipped quietly from memory.

banteng-auroch-bos-javanicus-cow

AUROCHS VS. BANTENG

Today, however, much interest has been sparked concerning the revival of the extinct aurochs from breeding back projects to the hopes of one day cloning them back into existence.  Organisations like Rewilding Europe and True Nature Foundation have made much progress in obtaining animals from selective breeding projects using domesticated breeds with “primitive” features.  These selective breeding projects may be viable especially given the fact that modern cattle are all descended from ancient aurochs ancestors, but what if at least some populations of wild bovines still exist with aurochs features?  What if a living proxy could be found in the wild that so closely resembles an aurochs that they may have been indistinguishable to the general observer in morphology, external characteristics and even temperament?  What if at least one subspecies of aurochs survived as the Southeast Asian banteng Bos javanicus?  Let us consider such a relationship between the aurochs and the banteng.

In external appearance the living banteng shares remarkably similar characteristics to that of the extinct aurochs.  Both animals started life with a chestnut coloured coat.  The females of both species retained their buff chestnut colouration into adulthood, while the males of both species darkened into chocolate-brown or black with maturity.  Both the banteng and the aurochs maintained an almost indistinguishable body form and size, with bulls being considerably larger than cows.  Similarly both animals fashioned visually homogeneous horn sizes and shapes for both sexes respectively.  The summation of all these characteristics renders the extinct aurochs Bos primigenius and living banteng Bos javanicus visually homogeneous.

Interestingly even the geographical distribution of the aurochs and the banteng may indicate a close relationship that may warrant the two to be considered two variations of a single “ecocline” or “cline” species.  An ecocline or cline consist of ecotypes or forms of a single species that exhibit gradual phenotypic and/or genetic differences over a geographical area, typically as a result of environmental heterogeneity.  If we consider the range of the aurochs and banteng we find that the Indian subspecies of aurochs reached their eastern limits in the exact geographical region where the banteng reached their western limits.  These aspects may well indicate a close cline relationship between visually similar animals that are considered today as two distinct species.  Further evidence that may well indicate this close cline relationship between banteng and the zebu-type auroch descendants are the fact that both banteng and zebu cattle interbreed freely where the two animals coexist in human inhabited areas of Southeast Asia with the hybrid offspring being fully fertile.

THE BANTENG

The banteng Bos javanicus, also known as tembadau in some parts of their range, is a magnificent species of wild bovine of Southeast Asia.  They are similar in size to domesticated cattle, but display considerable sexual dimorphism which allows the sexes to be readily distinguishable by both colour and size.  Throughout their range they inhabit a similar ecological niche as the aurochs did in Europe, being most abundant in forest/grassland mosaics, deciduous forests and woodlands.

They are currently considered as endangered by the IUCN, having underwent a population decrease of almost 80% in the last decade.  Their total wild population is estimated at between 5,000 to 8,000 individuals, while no single population has more than 500 individuals with most having less than 50 individuals.  Currently their population still seems to be decreasing throughout their range as a result of human/wildlife conflict, habitat destruction, increased hunting pressures, hybridisation with domesticated cattle, and infectious domesticated cattle diseases.

The threat of hybridisation is currently listed as a major threat to the wild banteng population.  Bali cattle (a domesticated form of banteng) have wilfully been interbred with domesticated cattle and these hybrids readily interbreed with the wild bovines.  Banteng also readily interbreed with domesticated cattle of the zebu-type (Bos primigenius) and hybrids are fully fertile.  Domestic and feral livestock are thus a great threat to the genetic integrity of wild banteng.

REWILDING BANTENG?

In conclusion, can the banteng be considered as an aurochs proxy in rewilding initiatives?  When considering the close relationship that the extinct aurochs once had to the living banteng genetically, morphologically, visually and behaviourally, it may well be considered sound and viable to use banteng in European rewilding initiatives.  Banteng prefer the same habitat that aurochs once thrived in, and would therefore fulfil the exact same ecological niche.  Both in size and in nature, the banteng represent almost indistinguishable characteristics to that of the extinct aurochs.  In areas where predators are present the banteng would also be better suited and have considerable advantages over domesticated cattle breeds.  In closing the banteng merits greater conservation value than domesticated cattle breeds and when used in European rewilding initiatives their global population would be afforded a greater buffer against the face of extinction.

The wild bovid once known as Aurochs or Urus Bos primigenius went the way of the dodo and all that remains of them today is ancient European rock art and classical literature and mere shadows of wild bravado in the form of their domesticated cattle descendants.  But what if an aurochs subspecies survived the onslaughts of man?  What if the aurochs survived as the banteng Bos javanicus of Southeast Asia?

Marcel van der Merwe II  |  Rewilding Forum
group-of-javan-banteng-at-forest-edge
Banteng herd in favoured habitat. (Credits: Masahiro lijima)
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3 thoughts on “Living Aurochs: The Case for Wild Cattle

  1. I suppose the first and foremost issue should be to save the dwindling Banteng-populations. In several loctions populations are also threatened by inbreeding.
    The statement that ‘Bos taurus and Bos javanicus are visually indistinctable’ is denied by a comparison of the photo’s in the post with the historical knowledge. At least some of the clorisation and hornforms are different.
    It probably would need a complete DNA-profile comparisation to see in how much they are related.t
    I do not know how a beast adjusted to a tropical environment (and its offspring) would cope with wintering conditions.
    Predation has not been a big problem for nowadays Bos taurus offspring. Most of the domestic cattle use in rewilding projects are only a few generations away from a predator-rich environment. Some domestic races and feral cows cope with predators on a daily basis. Natural herdinginstincts have survived.
    But i do like the look of the Banteng!
    A lot of thought about the races and species use in rewilding can be read on Daniel Foidl’s http://breedingback.blogspot.nl/search/label/Aurochs

    Frank Holweg

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    1. Thank for your comment Frank!

      That the European Aurochs and the Southeast Asian Bantengs may have varied in external appearance is correct and that can be expected for widely distributed species. An example of a widely distributed species (or rather superspecies) is the African Hartebeest which once ranged from the southernmost point of Africa to the Mediterranean shores of Morocco. Over this wide range various subspecies have formed all of whom had areas of overlap. Within these areas of overlap the subspecies freely interbred and visually represented a mixture of the given subspecies that were present. In terms of external appearance the furthest removed subspecies were visually most diverse.

      The same was probably true for the Aurochs in Europe, the Aurochs in the Middle East, the Aurochs in India and the Banteng in Southeast Asia. Over their vast range many “ecotypes” or “geographical variations” would have occurred, each of which may have been visually diverse yet still forming a single species.

      Your comment on the herding instinct in cattle is correct, and the offspring of breeding projects may well be able to fend for themselves and may even become “wilder” and more “predator-wise” over time if they were given the freedom to do so in nature reserves.

      Thank you for Daniel’s link, I will definitely reread through his work.

      Marcel van der Merwe II | Rewilding Forum

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  2. Interesting stuff, Marcel. I’ve written briefly about the back-breeding approach to getting something similar to aurochs in my own blog ( https://naturalareasblog.wordpress.com/2016/12/21/wild-cows/ ). Banteng have successfully wintered and bred in the UK at Chester Zoo in recent years. I’d like to see a lot more evidence that banteng and aurochs were so similar (I don’t doubt what you say). But if banteng are closer to aurochs than anything that might arise from back-breeding, I can’t see why we’d not use banteng.

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