The auroch revival: bringing back the big beef

Paul Raven @ 22-01-2010

It’s not often that we get to hear about people working on a scientific project previously instigated by Hitler and the Nazi Party of Germany… though this is thankfully a far more benign application of eugenic theory than the atrocities of the Second World War. Italian scientists are trying to recreate the auroch, an extinct breed of European mega-cattle, by selective “back breeding” and genetic analysis [via SlashDot; image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]:

“We were able to analyse auroch DNA from preserved bone material and create a rough map of its genome that should allow us to breed animals nearly identical to aurochs,” said team leader Donato Matassino, head of the Consortium for Experimental Biotechnology in Benevento, in the southern Campania region.

“We’ve already made our first round of crosses between three breeds native to Britain, Spain and Italy. Now we just have to wait and see how the calves turn out.”

The last animal disappeared from the British Isles in the Iron Age and the breed was declared extinct in 1627 after a female died in the forests of Poland.

Aurochs are depicted in ochre and charcoal in paintings found on the walls of cave galleries such as those at Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. Caesar described them in The Gallic Wars as being “a little below the elephant in size” and a favourite hunting prey for wild Germanic tribesmen.

Their abiding mystique means they remain as the symbol of several states and cities in Europe, having figured prominently in Teutonic folklore. In ancient times, killing an auroch was seen as a great demonstration of courage, with the horns turned into silver-clad drinking cups.

Exactly why we need to recreate a breed of cows with the size and temperament of a rhinocerous isn’t abundantly clear, and some researchers suggest that the back-breeding process will produce animals that, while they may look the part, are inevitably very different from the original aurochs at a genetic level. But then it probably won’t be more than a decade or so before we can reliably clone animals from archived DNA samples, Jurassic Park style.

Perhaps retro-engineered auroch hunting will become the European equivalent of the rich man’s African safari holiday? I’d be right behind that idea, on the proviso that the would-be hunters were obliged to use the weapons of the Middle Ages in their attempts to bag a trophy… 😉

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5 Responses to “The auroch revival: bringing back the big beef”

  1. Jeremiah Tolbert says:

    Oh man. Paleo man-themed hunting expeditions. That could work. I wonder what it takes to become a hunting guide here in Colorado…

  2. Lily says:

    NO!
    Why do people want to bring them back – just to kill + harm them and produce them for meat? Effing cruel murderers!
    Be ashamed of yourself Paul Raven and Jeremiah Tolbert. The world doesn’t need people like you.

  3. Paul Raven says:

    The world doesn’t need people, full stop, Lily. But don’t let me distract from the itching of your hairshirt, there.

  4. Tina Harrup says:

    I was very interested in this. I am doing research (for personal satisfaction only) into a local story – local being North West England. During a time of famine, a huge and miraculous cow was found wandering. It gave milk to all who came to her and saved the locals from certain starvation. But a witch arrived with a sieve and milked the poor beast until it died. In thanksgiving, the people mounted a rib of the cow over a farm door – and it is still there to this day. Some say, however, that it is not a cow rib but that of a whale, or a dinosaur or an auroch. I shall shortly be giving a 15 minute presentation on this story, and the auroch illustration would be a great addition. Would there be any problem with me using it. The presentation is to the History Group of the Lancaster and Morecambe U3A (www.lancasterandmorecambeu3a.org.uk) and I will not be paid!
    Tina Harrup

  5. Paul Raven says:

    Hi Tina; if you check the link, you’ll see that I got the image from Wikipedia; I suggest going there and checking out their re-use terms more thoroughly, but I’m pretty confident that you can reuse images they host there so long as you’re not making a profit while you do so.