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article imageTauros program would bring back Europe's famed Auroch cattle

By Karen Graham     Jan 10, 2017 in Science
Scientists are well under way to resurrecting an ancient breed of land herbivore, the auroch, an ancestor of the cattle we know today. The auroch roamed the plains of the European continent for 250,000 years until the very last one died in 1627.
And while the aurochs may be gone, their descendants survive today in the millions, but as domesticated cattle. Surprisingly, in some remote corners of Europe, there are some "primitive" breeds of cattle with many of the characteristics of aurochs, and some of them are being used in a program to bring the ancient herbivore back.
NaturPark Bayerischer Wald: A Heck bull is taking his rest.
(Many people assume that Heck cattle are...
NaturPark Bayerischer Wald: A Heck bull is taking his rest. (Many people assume that Heck cattle are indeed, Aurochs, but are they?)
Unlike the Nazi party, who revered the auroch as part of their Aryan heritage, and succeeded in creating the Heck cattle in the 1930s, scientists today are working to bring back the ancient animal for a more eco-friendly reason.
The Tauros Project
The Tauros Program is a private Dutch organization initially started using feral cattle and horses in nature management and natural grazing schemes. In 2008, while using the hardiest breeds they could find, such as Scottish highland cattle and Exmoor ponies, they found the breeds were not the best of wild-land grazers and they were too small to fight off predators in the wild.
So in 2008, they went looking for the ideal herbivore. Of course, the best suited to grazing in the wild was the auroch, but it was extinct and for 250,000 years, they roamed the European continent freely until the rise of humans who eventually decimated the herds.
The most primitive lineages of Maremmana  called ″Maremmana primitivo″  are used in the Tauros P...
The most primitive lineages of Maremmana, called ″Maremmana primitivo″, are used in the Tauros Programme.
Peter von Wesendonk
The auroch was an impressive animal, standing almost as tall as an elephant, with lean, powerful frames and a pair of horns no human or animal predator would want to mess with. More importantly, though, the auroch played a very major role in Europe's biodiversity. Hundreds of plant and animal species developed in co-evolution with the vast herds, creating a balanced ecosystem.
To recreate the auroch is a project that will go hand-in-hand with Rewilding Europe, an initiative aiming at the rebuilding of the 'Natural heart of Europe'' with the goal of 'rewilding' ten large European areas. The auroch will be a key addition to the rewilding plan.
The founding breeds of TaurOs Project. Upper row from left to right: Limia  Maremmana primitivo  Mar...
The founding breeds of TaurOs Project. Upper row from left to right: Limia, Maremmana primitivo, Maronesa. Lower row: Podolica, Sayaguesa, Pajuna. Down below, the phenotypic and ecologic breeding target, the Aurochs.
DFoidl/Tauros Programme
Speed breeding the Auroch
Ecologist Ronald Goderie, the founder of the Tauros Program told CNN the auroch was the logical choice to help save Europe's biodiversity. "We thought we needed a grazer that is fully self-sufficient in case of big predators...and could do the job of grazing big wild areas. We reasoned that this animal would have to resemble an auroch."
Instead of using gene-editing or "de-extinction" breeding used in trying to bring back the woolly mammoth, Goderie chose a method known as back-breeding to create a substitute bovine he named "Tauros." After identifying certain cattle breeds in Spain, Portugal, Italy and the Balkans, geneticists had farmers breed certain species together.
This produced cattle with characteristics that were closer to the auroch. The offspring were then bred. This breeding went on for a number of generations of cattle, and each time, scientists were able to determine with genetic testing that they were getting closer to the DNA fingerprint of the ancient auroch.
Aurochs in a cave painting in Lascaux  France.
Aurochs in a cave painting in Lascaux, France.
Prof Saxx
"You could see from the first generation that apart from the horn size, there was enough wild in the breed to produce animals far closer to the auroch than we would have expected," says Goderie. He predicts that it will take seven generations to reach the desired outcome, with hopes set on 2025 as the year a "near 100 percent substitute" will be back.
The fourth generation auroch-like cattle have already been located to rewilding sites in Croatia, Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Romania, with "very promising" results. Many areas of Europe have landscapes that are in dire need of grazing animals, otherwise, the land will even become uninhabitable to other species. We hope the program will be a success.
More about wild cattle, auroch, continent's ecosystem, herbivore, tauros project
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