Aurochs - Bos primigenius
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The Augsburg aurochs. This painting is a copy of the original that was present at a merchant in Augsburg in the 19th century. The original probably dates from the 16th century. It is not known if the original as well the copy still exist somewhere (Van Vuure, 2003). This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to the European Union, the United States, Australia and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.
The Aurochs by Heinrich Harder (1858-1935), probably created in 1920. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to the European Union, the United States, Australia and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.
|TSEW Status||Extinct (EX), Year assessed: 2011|
|IUCN Status||Extinct (EX), Year assessed: 2008|
|English Name||Aurochs, Urus|
|Dutch Name||Oeros, Oerrund|
|German Name||Auerochse, Ur|
|Hebrew Name||האירופי הבר שור|
|Irish Name||Áracs, Úras|
Bos mauretanicus Thomas, 1881; Bos namadicus Falconer, 1859; Bos primigenius italics Pohlig, 1911; Bos primigenius siciliae Pohlig, 1911; Bos taurus primigenius (Bojanus, 1827)
Linnaeus gave the European domesticated cattle breeds its scientific name Bos taurus Linnaeus, 1758. He knew that the wild ancestor of domesticated cattle breeds had lived in Europe and maybe still lived at the time. We know this because he had classified 'urus' (= aurochs) under the same species name. Linnaeus saw the aurochs and the European domesticated cattle as one and the same species. In the time of Linnaeus the memory of the aurochs was almost completely disappeared. There was some confusion and discussion on the number of wild cattle species that existed in Europe. Like Bojanus, some said that only one species existed, namely the European bison or wisent (Bison bonasus). Others said that there were two species, namely the European bison and the aurochs. In the beginning of the 19th century many bones of aurochs were excavated and one complete skeleton existed. Bojanus named a new species from this skeleton: Bos primigenius Bojanus, 1827. (Van Vuure, 2003)
Nowadays we know that Bos primigenius and Bos taurus belong to the same species, so conform to the Code of the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature was the scientific name of the aurochs Bos primigenius changed into the name given by Linnaeus Bos taurus by Wilson and Reeder in 1993. Some scientists had criticism on this change of the scientific name of the aurochs. They wanted that there would be made an exception for domesticated animals.
In 2003, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature "conserved the usage of 17 specific names based on wild species, which are pre-dated by or contemporary with those based on domestic forms", confirming Bos primigenius for the Aurochs. Taxonomists who consider domesticated cattle a subspecies of the wild Aurochs should use Bos primigenius taurus; the name Bos taurus remains available for domestic cattle where it is considered to be a separate species. (International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, 2003)
There has been considerable discussion regarding the actual taxonomic status of the different aurochs subspecies. Based on detailed craniometric analysis, Grisson (1980) has proposed that Bos primigenius namadicus and Bos primigenius primigenius should be classified as separate species. Epstein & Mason (1984) disputed this proposal, claiming that the distinction between races is not particularly clear-cut, being based on body size and horn shape (both of which can be affected by environmental influences). This view is also shared by Zeuner (1963a) and Payne (1991) who argue that geographical range is the basis of the classification and not biological taxonomic status. (Bunzel-Drüke, 2001)
The aurochs was much larger than the domesticated cows of now. Previously people thought that the shoulder height of an aurochs bull was approximately 200 cm and that of a cow 180 cm (Herre, 1953). Now scientists have calculated on the basis of the length of the humerus (upper leg bone) that the shoulder height of an aurochs bull probably varied between 160 and 180 cm, and that of an aurochs cow around 150 cm. The aurochs bull’s coat colour was black-brown with a small light eel stripe. The colour of the cow was just as the calves’ colour reddish brown. The bull as well as the cow probably had a light zone around the snout. The aurochs’ horns were pointed forward and were curved inwards. Although the shape of the horn was very characteristic for the aurochs, there was some variation in the length, thickness, curving, and position with regard to its forehead. The udder of the aurochs cow was small and hardly visible. (Van Vuure, 2003)
In spring and summertime, the aurochs’ diet consisted probably mostly from grasses, grass-like plants, completed with herbs and leaves of trees and bushes. In autumn they ate somewhat less grass and more from trees and bushes. This was completed with tree fruits, like acorns. During wintertime the aurochs diet consisted beside grass, grass-like plants and herbs for an important part from branches and even some bark from trees and bushes. The last population of aurochs in Poland in the forests of Jaktorów were extra fed in the winter with hay. (Van Vuure, 2003)
The time for breeding and thus also the time in which the calves were born was during a particular period of the year. In Poland (where the last aurochs lived) occurred the breeding period in late summer, probably in August and September. The calves were born in late spring, probably in May and June. The adult bulls migrated shortly before and during the breeding period to the mixed herds in order to mate there with the cows. (Van Vuure, 2003)
The aurochs lived in mixed herds of cows, calves and young bulls. Beside that, there were also small herds of older bulls and solitary (alone living) old bulls. (Van Vuure, 2003)
|Range & Habitat||
The aurochs (Bos primigenius Bojanus, 1827) had once a distribution area that included almost whole of Europe, large parts of Asia, and North Africa (see range map below). At that time there existed still three subspecies of the aurochs, namely Bos primigenius namadicus Falconer, 1859 that occurred in India, the Bos primigenius mauretanicus Thomas, 1881 from North Africa and naturally the Bos primigenius primigenius Bojanus, 1827 from Europe and the Middle East. Only the European subspecies has survived until in recent times, that is also the aurochs where we are discussing here on this page. (Van Vuure, 2003)
Image: The former distribution range of the Aurochs.The possible former range of the primigenius-subspecies is coloured red, that of the mauretanicus-subspecies is coloured yellow and that of the namadicus-subspecies is coloured orange. This map is created by Peter Maas for The Extinction Website. Based on an image by C.T. van Vuure (2003).This image has been released under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives 3.0 Licence.
If the aurochs did occur on islands within its range depends on the accessibility from the mainland and the size of such island. Like modern cattle, the aurochs could swim, but not far distances. Like Japan, the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus, Crete and Malta have never been reached by aurochs, but Sicily did have an aurochs population. After the disappearance of the land bridge with mainland Italy, the Sicilian aurochs dwarfed to a size 20% smaller than the mainland form. (Brugal 1987; Van Vuure 2003)
The landscape where in the aurochs in Europe lived consisted of extensive forests alternated through different kinds of swamps. On the basis of bone that are found and old descriptions, the aurochs appears to have preferred swamps and swamp woods, like river valleys, river deltas, and different kind of bogs. Beside swamp woods the aurochs shall also have lived in less wet forests. In Europe, possible a particular separation has existed between the biotope of the aurochs and that of the European bison (Bison bonasus). The aurochs lived in somewhat more wet forests and the European bison in the some drier forests. There will have certainly also existed an overlap between the habitats of these two species (Van Vuure, 2003). However there is uncertainty as to what ecological niche the aurochs filled. Dr Frans Vera claims that the aurochs lived in open parkland.
|History & Population||
The first ruminants (whereto the aurochs belonged) arose approximately 40 million year ago. Through the expansion of savannas and grasslands on earth, arose about 25 million year ago the on grass-adjusted ruminants. Most old representative of the genus Bos is Bos acutifrons Lydekker, 1898. It is widely accepted that from this species all later species arose. Bos acutifrons lived till in the middle of the Pleistocene still in India. Between 1.5 and 2 million years ago the aurochs descended probably from this species. (Van Vuure, 2003)
The aurochs spread out in the course of the Pleistocene from India to for example Europe. The aurochs arrived through a southern route first in southern Europe, from where it probably went on via central Europe to Russia. The aurochs appeared approximately 700,000 years ago in Spain and the most old remains of the aurochs in Germany dates from 275,000 years ago. (Van Vuure, 2003)
Photo: a cave painting of an aurochs bull in Lascaux, France. This is a faithful photographic reproduction of an original two-dimensional work of art. The original image comprising the work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to the European Union, the United States, Australia and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.
Information on the occurrence of the aurochs in Asia is pretty scarce. The mid and east Asian populations of the aurochs probably became already extinct in the Pleistocene. Palaeontologists Lanpo Jia and Qi Wei (1980) claim to have made the discovery of a Holocene aurochs in China (Zong 1984), but this determination is unreliable because the remains were found in a river that probably moved it from its original site (Van Vuure 2003). However, almost certainly a population in India has survived, because in that area the domesticated zebu originated. An early image of the zebu made by the Mohenjo-Daro culture dates from 4000-2000 B.C., at that time people knew also other cattle breeds that resembled western breeds.
Like in Asia, there is little information known about the occurrence of the aurochs in the Middle East and North Africa, but luckily just a bit more. The last occurrence of the aurochs in Egypt can be fixed on the basis of a hunting trip of pharaoh Ramses ll in 1197-1165 B.C., but probably that hunt appeared to be held in North Mesopotamia (nowadays Iraq). Many represented hunting trips are known from images from Mesopotamia. The youngest account of aurochs from that region arrives from a hunting trip on 'wild cattle' by the Assyrian king Senacherib (704-681 BC) in North Mesopotamia. In Libya, there a known account of the Greek historian Herodotus (± 485-425 BC), who mentioned there the presence of cattle that was doomed to graze backwards because of their curved horns (‘Historiën’, Book lV, chap. 183). One is only not certain if it here really goes about aurochs. We could say that the aurochs disappeared in the Middle East and North Africa in the course of the first millennium B.C. (Van Vuure, 2003)
The process of decline and disappearance of the aurochs in Europe started in south and western Europe to the northeast and ended finally in Poland. In the southern parts of Europe, like Spain, south and mid-Italy, and the southern Balkans, it is not known from bone finds, names of cities, rivers, etc.), or descriptions until what time the aurochs survived there in the wild. In the United Kingdom no remains can be found that date after 1300 BC (early bronze age). Around 30 BC Vergillius mentioned that in the north of Italy still 'wild aurochs' lived that were captured to be tamed. The ancient Romans made big efforts to catch and transport wild animals (including the aurochs) to Rome and other cities to be used in arena fights. This does suspect that the aurochs the aurochs became extinct in Italy around the start of our era. In Denmark the aurochs disappeared first on the islands, namely around 5500 BC. In Jutland, the continental part of Denmark, the aurochs became extinct around the birth of Christ. In the Netherlands no remains of the aurochs are known that date after the period of the ancient Romans (after 400 BC). In Belgium aurochs have occurred, but a national systematic overview of aurochs finds is still absent. In France Charlemagne hunted for example in 802 AD at a aurochs 'with gigantic horns'. Possibly aurochs came still to France for a long time from Germany and Switzerland, where the aurochs still was reported in 1000 AD. According to an account of Adam van Bremen could the aurochs still be found in Sweden in the 11th century, but it is not certain if this is the truth or from folktales. Aaris-Sørensen (1999) posits the extinction of the aurochs in Sweden around 4500 BC, much earlier! We know for sure through an account of Olaus Magnus that the aurochs was extinct in Sweden in the year 1555. In Russia the aurochs became probably extinct in the 12th or 13th century. In Hungary the oldest bones date from the 12th century, and probably the aurochs became probably extinct before 1250 there. In Germany reliable accounts of aurochs between 1406 and 1408 are preserved. (Van Vuure, 2003)
The very last aurochs survived only in Poland. In 1476 the two last aurochs populations came in the possession of the Royal Family, after they were in possession of the Duke of Mazovia. In the second halve of the 16th century the aurochs only survived in the forests of Wiskitki and Jaktorów. The first inspection report that names aurochs dates from 1564. At that time only 38 aurochs remained, namely 22 cows, 3 young animals, 5 calves, and 8 bulls. In the year 1566 only 24 aurochs survived. Documents from 1602, 1620, and 1630 report only aurochs from the forest of Jaktorów. The inspection report from 1602 names just 4 animals, namely 3 bulls and only one cow. In 1620 the last aurochs bull dies and only one cow is left. In the inspection report of 1630 is written: 'In the previous report [from 1620] is written that only one cow was left, but the residents of this village [Jaktorów] said that she died three years ago'. This means that the last aurochs died in 1627. (Van Vuure, 2003)
Photo: Monument to the last aurochs in Jaktorów, Poland. Photograped by Tomasz Kuran in 2005. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Some aurochs have also lived in captivity, for example in the zoo in Zamość in southeast Poland, that was mentioned in a letter of a visitor from 1610. Before that the same writer of that letter wrote that the aurochs only could be found in the zoo in Zamość. It is not known if these captive aurochs have survived there for a long time and if they had survived the wild population. (Van Vuure, 2003)
Humans were the cause of the decline and extinction of the aurochs. This was done through means of hunt, but also thought competition on its feeding ground by domesticated cattle. Finally the very last aurochs in Poland disappeared through a combination of disinterest, corruption, cattle diseases, food competition (from domesticated cattle), and in less extent hunt. (Van Vuure, 2003)
In central Poland in the forests of the village of Jaktorów there was for some centuries a good organised animal management, wherein the aurochs took a central position. In the beginning the aurochs were Ducal possession and later that became Royal. There they were protected and fed in the winter period. The Kings Zygmunt I and his successor Zygmunt August had no great interest for the hunt and did because of that not much to preserve the Royal hunt objects. The result of this was that the Royal grip on the protection of the aurochs weakened. After 1572, a very restless time began in Poland. A time where different Kings succeeded each other in a very short time and where much internal struggle existed. The organisation of the protection of the aurochs was more and more hollowed out and the influence of the King decreased strongly. When in 1604 only some aurochs remained, in a Royal decree it was ordered that everything needed to be done to protect the aurochs and its habitat, but this has not helped sadly enough. (Van Vuure, 2003)
Already in 1835, the Polish zoologist Jarocki pleaded in an article to undertake and attempt to get the aurochs back in its original form. But it lasted still almost hundred year before someone actively began with an attempt to re-breed the aurochs. The brothers Lutz and Heinz Heck have both made attempts to recreate the aurochs in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Both brothers did this through cross several cattle breeds, which possessed aurochs characteristics according to them, and to select the offspring. Each brother used his own selection of cattle breeds. Heinz began his experiment in the Hellabrunn Zoo in Munich. Lutz began a bit later than his brother with his experiment in Berlin. The result of their experiments to re-breed the aurochs was according to the Heck brothers quickly achieved and had a strong resemblance to the real aurochs. Lutz released his Heck cattle into the wild in large nature areas in Germany and Poland, but Heinz kept his Heck cattle exclusively in zoos and small game parks. Most likely the Heck cattle of Lutz have not survived World War II, and do only the Heck cattle of Heinz remain today. After the war, individual breeders have bred the Heck cattle to their own (often wrong) insight. Today, Heck cattle can be found in many places, like zoos and nature parks. (Van Vuure, 2003)
Photo: Heck Cattle in nature reserve the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands. Photographed by Gerard Meijssen on 16 September 2004. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. A full resolution version can be found at Wikimedia Commons.
Relatively fast after the creation of Heck cattle there came criticism to as well the execution as the result of the re-breeding experiment. The criticism addressed especially on the image on how the aurochs looked like, that the brothers Heck had formed themselves. This image was created by a mixture of truth and mostly phantasy. There was even a difference of opinion between the brothers over how the aurochs looked like. Furthermore there was criticism on the way they bred and selected and on the speed on which they reached their end result. Heinz worked at most 12 years on his experiment, and Lutz only at most 11 years. The selection criteria were vague and broad, and there was no good administration kept of the crossings that had been made. The re-breeding experiment of Lutz and Heinz Heck is characterized by an incompetent and untransparent way of working. (Van Vuure, 2003)
When we now compare the Heck cattle and the real aurochs, we see that there is little similarity between the two. Only the colour of the fur of some Heck cattle is similar, but there are also many Heck cattle with a wrong fur colour. This is caused by the recessive genetic characteristics which still exist in Heck cattle and originated from the used domesticated European cattle breeds. Other characteristics, like the shape of the horns and body size, do not resemble the real aurochs. (Van Vuure, 2003)
A cattle population that as a whole has more characteristics of the aurochs than the current Heck cattle is that of the Spanish Fighting cattle. Within the heterogeneous population of the Spanish fighting cattle not only more aurochs characteristics are present, but often also combined in one individual. Within this populations there exist for example red-brown cows with a small utter and the aurochs horn shape, and black-brown bulls with a light eel stripe, a light snout and the aurochs horn shape. The selection and crossing of these Spanish bull fight can reach the target to recreate the aurochs much faster and better than has been done by the Heck brothers and their Heck cattle. (Van Vuure, 2003)
From the extinct aurochs a large amount of separate bones, some 15 more or less complete skeletons, some keratine horns and some hairs are left at the moment. There are no soft tissues left, like meat or skin. (Van Vuure, 2002)
In the National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet) a skeleton of the aurochs can be found, the Vig-Aurochs. This almost two-metre tall aurochs was wounded by the sharp flint tips of Stone Age hunters’ spears, but was not killed. The circles in the photo indicate where the animal was wounded by arrows. The ox fled from the hunters into a lake in Odsherred where it sank to the bottom and died, denying the hunters their kill. The aurochs died around 8600 BC, but its skeleton was not found until 1905. The skeleton of another aurochs was found in the vicinity in 1985.
Other remnants of the aurochs can for example be found in the Natuurmuseum Groningen (Groningen, the Netherlands), the Zeeuws Museum (Middelburg, the Netherlands), a skull in the Rosensteinmuseum (Stuttgart, Germany).
The closest relatives of the aurochs are of course the domesticated descendants, namely the European cattle breeds (Bos primigenius taurus), the Spanish fighting cattle in particular, and the zebu breeds (Bos primigenius indicus). Although the relationship between the different species of the cattle groups (Bovini) has not yet been complete declared, is the aurochs further probably most related to the gaur (Bos frontalis) and the banteng (Bos javanicus).
Domesticated descendants: European cattle (Friesian-Holstein breed) and a zebu.
The banteng (Bos javanicus) and the gaur (Bos frontalis).
Photos: Friesian-Holstein cow (photo by Keith Weller) and a zebu (photo by Scott Bauer). These images are in the public domain because it contains materials that originally came from the Agricultural Research Service, the research agency of the United States Department of Agriculture. The Banteng has been photographed by Mark Pellegrini at Disney's Animal Kingdom in January 2006. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The Gaur has been photographed by Colint (a Wikipedia user) at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park in Escondido, CA, USA. This image has been released under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Licence.
Bunzel-Drüke, M. (2001). Ecological substitutes for Wild horse (Equus ferus Boddaert, 1785 = E. przewalslii Poljakov, 1881) and Aurochs (Bos primigenius Bojanus, 1827). Natur- und Kulturlandschaft, Höxter/Jena, 4, 10 p. AFKP. Online pdf (298 kB)
Brugal, J. P. (1987). Cas de "nanisme" insulaire chez l’aurochs. 112th Congrès National des Sociétés Savantes, Lyon, 2, pp. 53-66.
International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. (2003). Opinion 2027 (Case 3010). Usage of 17 specific names based on wild species which are pre-dated by or contemporary with those based on domestic animals (Lepidoptera, Osteichthyes, Mammalia): conserved. Bull.Zool.Nomencl., 60:81-84.
MacHugh, D.E. (1996) Molecular Biogeography and Genetic Structure of Domesticated Cattle [Ph.D. thesis]. University of Dublin. Website (with pdf article)
Pohlig, H. (1911) Bull. Soc. beige Geol. vol. xxvi. Proc. Verb. pp. 311-17.
Van Vuure, C. T. (2002). History, morphology and ecology of the Aurochs (Bos taurus primigenius). Lutra 45-1. Online pdf (603 kB) Also available in Dutch: Van Vuure, C. T. (2002). Historie, morfologie en ecologie van de oeros (Bos taurus primigenius) Lutra 45-1.
Van Vuure, C.T. (2003). De Oeros - Het spoor terug, Cis van Vuure, Wageningen University and Research Centrum / Ministry of the Flemish Community, Brussels & Wageningen. Also available in English: Van Vuure, C.T. (2005). Retracing the Aurochs: History, Morphology and Ecology of an Extinct Wild Ox. Pensoft Publishers. Sofia-Moscow.
Zong, G. (1984). A record of Bos primigenius from the Quaternary of the Aba Tibetan Autonomous Region. Vertebrata PalAsiatica, Volume XXII No. 3 pp. 239-245. Translated by Will Downs, April 1991. Online pdf (62 kB)
|Citation:||Maas, P.H.J. (2011). Aurochs - Bos primigenius. In: TSEW (). The Sixth Extinction Website. <http://www.petermaas.nl/extinct>. Downloaded on .|
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|Updated:||01 January 2011|