Several times in the history of the Earth sudden changes occurred that led to more than half of the animal and plant species becoming extinct. New species came into being but scientists have found a good reason to revive or bring back some of the species that have gone extinct or are near to it. The aurochs, a giant species of cattle made famous in cave painting, might make a comeback thanks to scientists.
The huge ancient cattle species roamed Europe for thousands of years until they died out in the Jaktorow Forest of Poland in the early 17th century. They measured up to lengths of 7 feet (2.13 meters) and could weigh as much as 2200 pounds (1,000 kilograms). Since 2009, scientists have been trying to revive the aurochs from varieties of cattle that still carry their DNA.
Though it sounds straight out of Jurassic Park, it is happening for real in the instance of the ancient aurochs (Bos primigenius). They were the ancestors of the modern cattle and roamed in the wild before the last of their species died out in 1627.
The growth of agriculture and the domestication of other varieties of cattle put the aurochs on the road to extinction. But why do we need to bring back the auroch other than for the fact that they have an ancient link with the human psyche? The only known remains of the aurochs are fossils. Julius Caesar wrote about their extraordinary speed and strength.
They were found over a vast expanse of Europe and Asia spanning the Fertile Crescent region in the Middle East to the Iberian Peninsula. They were also found in Scandinavia to the north and in the Indian subcontinent. But there are few historical records to go by. There is also the likelihood that they varied in size and temperament across regions. The giant species have survived into modern times as the primeval and powerful ox.
Reviving The Aurochs From Existing Genetic Material
Scientists believe that the characteristics of the ancient aurochs abound in various breeds of cattle but attempts at reviving the ancient species have been sporadic and genetically imperfect. Back breeding of species was attempted by the Heck brothers, Heinz and Lutz, zoo directors owing allegiance to the Nazis back in the 1930s. Their creation took over a decade to accomplish. Breeds of Spanish fighting bulls were used, and the Heck-cattle is still found in Europe.
The Heck brothers were fixated more on the size of the breed, and not on the purity and anatomical details of the original. Though their progeny survives in Europe, they are not considered to be a faithful recreation of the original aurochs. They are found in the Netherlands, in the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve, and are useful as a primary grazer.
Much of Europe was assumed to be forests before human settlers moved in. but it was found that the ancient European landscape also had meadows and various other forms of habitat. The giant aurochs with their grazing habits would have contributed to these open pasturelands. The Oostvaardersplassen was founded by Frans Vera, the Dutch biologist who first proposed that the European landscape was not all forests. The introduction of grazing animals from the wild is the prime reason behind the plan to bring back the auroch, or something close to it. The proponents of natural grazing believe that such introduction will lead to the creation of future wilderness on the continent.
Rural land, especially farmland, is being abandoned as the human population moves to an urban landscape. The auroch initiative is an attempt to re-wild and restore the abandoned rural landscape using the wild grazers.
The first complete auroch genome sequencing was done by Stephen Park and his team in 2015. The genetic material was obtained from a single fossil but more research is needed to unravel the genetic versatility of the dead species. Then there is the ethical question of bringing back a dead species. With rival teams vying, it could finally lead to several variants of the giant ancient grazer.