lascaux aurochs1

Aurochs - Bos primigenius

Family:
Cattle (Artiodactyla Bovidae Bovinae)
Status:
Extinct

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Taxonomic status

Scientific name

Bos primigenius

Common name

Aurochs

Synonyms

Urus

Comments on the subspecies

Subspecies


The aurochs had three subspecies:

  • Bos primigenius primigenius from Europe and the Middle East
  • Bos primigenius namadicus from India
  • Bos primigenius mauretanicus from North Africa

Only the nominate subspecies has survived until recent times.

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Species information

Physical characteristics

Shoulder Height 200 cm
Weight 1000 kg


The Aurochs or Urus (Bos primigenius), the ancestor of domestic cattle, was a type of huge wild cattle which inhabited Europe, Asia and North Africa, but is now extinct.

The aurochs was far larger than most modern domestic cattle with a shoulder height of 2 metres and weighing 1,000 kilograms.

Aurochs were about 1,75 to 2,00 metres tall, while a large domesticated cow is about 1,5 metres and most domestic cattle are much smaller than this. Aurochs also had several features rarely seen in modern cattle, such as lyre-shaped horns set at a forward angle, a pale stripe down the spine, and sexual dimorphism of coat color. Males were black with a pale eel stripe or finching down the spine, while females and calves were reddish (these colours are still found in a few domesticated cattle breeds, such as Jersey cattle).

Aurochs were also known to have very aggressive temperaments and killing one was seen as a great act of courage in ancient cultures.

Skelleton of Aurochs found in a peat bog in Denmark

Skelleton of Aurochs found in a peat bog in Denmark

 

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aurochs

Habitat, behaviour, food and reproduction

Habitat

There is uncertainty about the habitat preferences of the aurochs.

The species appears to have preferred swamps and swamp forests, such as river valleys, river deltas, and bogs, but it probably also lived in drier forests, and perhaps in open parkland.

In Europe, there might have been an ecological separation between the preferred habitat of the aurochs and that of the European bison (Bison bonasus), with the aurochs lived in somewhat wetter forests and the European bison in the somewhat drier forests, though the niches of these two species almost certainly overlapped.

Source: The Extinction Website, 2007.

Behavioral patterns

The recovery pattern of aurochs remains lead to the belief that they preferred swampy and wet wooded areas and, like modern cattle, could swim for short distances enabling them to inhabit islands within their range.

Their diet is thought to have consisted of green grass and leaves with occasional tree fruits.

Aurochs species were found to have lived on the island of Sicily where once there was a land bridge to Italy. After disappearance of the land bridge, Sicilian aurochs evolved to a size 20% smaller than their mainland relatives. Although the European bison prefers drier forest they would most certainly have lived in areas overlapping aurochs territory. Little else is known about Aurochs habits. Although they survived until the 17th century in Poland, they were in competition with modern cattle for food and hunted by humans contributing to their extinction.

Genetics

The first complete mitochondrial genome (16,338 base pairs) DNA sequence analysis of Bos primigenius from an archaeologically-verified and exceptionally-well preserved aurochs bone sample was published in 2010.

Predation

No clear information has been found yet about which animals predated on Aurochs.

Population size and trends

Hunting rights

In the times that Aurohcs were still alive the right to hunt large animals on any land was restricted to nobles and gradually to the royal household.

Population decline

As the population of aurochs declined, hunting ceased but the royal court still required gamekeepers to provide open fields for the aurochs to graze in. The gamekeepers were exempted from local taxes in exchange for their service and a decree made poaching an aurochs punishable by death, but this was not enough to save the species.

1564

In 1564, the gamekeepers knew of only 38 animals, according to the royal survey.

Source: The Extinction Website, 2007.

AreaNumbersDevelopment
World-Extinct
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Distribution: maps, historical and current

Historical distribution

Roaming Eurasia and Northern Africa

The now-extinct aurochs, which ranged throughout much of Eurasia and Northern Africa during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene, is widely accepted as the wild ancestor of modern cattle.

Archaeological evidence shows that domestication of this formidable animal occurred independently in the Near East and the Indian subcontinent between 10,000–8,000 years ago, giving rise to the two major domestic taxa observed today — humpless Bos taurus (taurine) and humped Bos indicus (zebu), respectively. This is confirmed by genetic analyses of matrilineal mitochondrial DNA sequences, which reveal a marked differentiation between modern Bos taurus and Bos indicus haplotypes, demonstrating their derivation from two geographically- and genetically-divergent wild populations.

Domestication

Domestication of the aurochs began in the southern Caucasus and northern Mesopotamia from about the 6th millennium BC, while genetic evidence suggests that aurochs were independently domesticated in northern Africa and in India.

Comparison of aurochs bones with those of modern cattle has provided many insights about the aurochs. Remains of the beast, from specimens believed to have weighed more than a ton, have been found in Mesolithic sites around Goldcliff, Wales. Though aurochs became extinct in Britain during the Bronze age, analysis of bones from aurochs that lived in the same age as domesticated cattle there showed no genetic contribution to modern breeds. As a result, modern European cattle are now thought to have descended directly from the Near East domestication event.

Indian cattle (zebu), although domesticated eight to ten thousand years ago, are related to aurochs which diverged from the Near Eastern ones some 200,000 years ago. African cattle are thought to descend from aurochs more closely related to the Near Eastern ones. The Near East and African aurochs groups are thought to have split some 25,000 years ago, probably 15,000 years before domestication. The "Turano-Mongolian" type of cattle now found in Northern China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan may represent a fourth domestication event (and a third event among Bos taurus–type aurochs). This group may have diverged from the Near East group some 35,000 years ago. Whether these separate genetic populations would have equated to separate subspecies is unclear.

The last Aurochs

The original range of the aurochs was from Britain and Ireland and southern Scandinavia, to northern Africa, the Middle East, India and central Asia.

By the 13th century A.D., the aurochs' range was restricted to Poland, Lithuania, Moldavia, Transylvania and East Prussia.

The right to hunt large animals on any land was restricted to nobles and gradually to the royal household. As the population of aurochs declined, hunting ceased but the royal court still required gamekeepers to provide open fields for the aurochs to graze in. The gamekeepers were exempted from local taxes in exchange for their service and a decree made poaching an aurochs punishable by death.

In 1564, the gamekeepers knew of only 38 animals, according to the royal survey. The last recorded live aurochs, a female, died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland from natural causes. The skull was later taken by the Swedish Army during the Swedish invasion of Poland (1655–1660) and is now the property of Livrustkammaren in Stockholm.

The causes of extinction were hunting, a narrowing of habitat due to the development of farming, climatic changes and diseases transmitted by domestic cattle.

The Eurasian subspecies (Bos primigenius primigenius) once ranged across the steppes and taigas of Europe, Siberia, and Central Asia. It is part of the famous Pleistocene megafauna, and declined in numbers along with other megafauna species by the end of Pleistocene.

The Eurasian aurochs were domesticated into modern cattle breeds around the 6th millennium BC, in the Middle East, and possibly also at about the same time in the Far East.

Aurochs were still widespread in Europe by the time of the Roman Empire, when they were widely popular as a battle beast in Roman arenas, and excessive hunting began and continued until it was nearly extinct. By the 13th century, aurochs existed only in low numbers in Eastern Europe, and hunting of aurochs became a privilege of nobles, and later royal households. The decreased hunting did not save the aurochs from extinction, and the last recorded live aurochs, a female, died in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland.

Current distribution

World distribution under domestication of Bos taurus


It is distributed worldwide under domestication (as Bos taurus), and feral populations have become established in Australia, New Guinea, the United States, Colombia, Argentina and many islands, including Hawaii, Galápagos, Hispaniola, Tristan da Cunha, New Amsterdam, Juan Fernandez Islands, and the United Kingdom (Chillingham cattle).

Aurochs appear in prehistoric cave paintings, Julius Caesar's The Gallic War and as the national symbol of many European countries, states and cities such as Alba-Iulia, Kaunas, Romania, Moldavia, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Uri.

Symbols of Aurochs

Attempts of restoring the Aurochs

Scientists of the Polish Foundation for Recreating the Aurochs (PFOT) in Poland now want to use DNA from bones of aurochs in museums to recreate the aurochs and return this animal to the forests of Poland.

The project has gained the support of the Polish Ministry of the Environment. They plan research on ancient preserved DNA. Similar research projects have been run in the West over the past twenty years and their results published in such periodicals as Nature and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Polish scientists believe that modern genetics and biotechnology make recreating an animal almost identical to aurochs possible (99 percent gene compatibility). They say this research will lead to examining the causes of the extinction of the aurochs, and help in preventing a similar situation occurring among domestic cattle.

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Threats

Jaktorów Forest

In central Poland in the forests of the village of Jaktorów for several centuries the managed of the remaining aurochs was well organised. Initially the animals were owned by nobility, but later they became royal possessions. There they were protected and fed during the winter period.

However, the Kings Zygmunt I and his successor Zygmunt August had less interest than their predecessors and did little to preserve the animals, and the conservation measures weakened.
After 1572, a period of political turmoil lead to a decrease in influence of the King. By 1604 only a few aurochs remained, and a Royal decree was issued stating that everything needed to be done to protect the aurochs and its habitat, but this was not enough. The species disappeared because of hunting and competition on its feeding grounds with domesticated cattle.

The last aurochs in Poland disappeared through a combination of lack of interest, corruption, cattle diseases, food competition (from domesticated cattle), and to a lesser extent, hunting.

Source: Van vuure 2003 and the Extinction website 2007.

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Conservation information

IUCN Red List

Extinct:

EU habitat directive

-

CITES

-

EU Wildlife trade regulation EC Reg. 338/97

-

Bern convention

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Bonn convention

-

Conservation status

This species was extirpated from the majority of its range by the 15th century and persisted only in the Jaktorowka Forest, Masovia, Poland, with the last wild individual reputed to have died in 1627.

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Experts and scientific referees

Kerkdijk, Henri

Restoring cattle breeds for Europe; genetics of prehistoric fauna
Stichting Taurus
www.stichtingtaurus.nl

Reisinger, Edgar

Germany
Taurus Naturentwicklung e.V., Jena.

Zimmermann, Waltraut

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All comments on Aurochs (Bos primigenius)

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