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Friday, 3 March 2017

A European Krüger National Park?

The Krüger National Park is world famous – almost half as big as Switzerland, it houses a great biodiversity including a diverse megafauna, Africa’s “big five” among them. It attracts thousands of visitors every year and is one of the most important reserves in South Africa, protecting the megafaunal community.

Africa is the last continent on earth that houses more or less intact megafaunal communities. On all other continents, they have been depleted either a long time ago and/or have been disrupted quite recently (thinking of North America). Europe does not have a single place where all of the original Holocene megafauna species can be found living side by side, especially since two of them have been exterminated in their wild type, the aurochs and the European wild horse. Now imagine there would be something like the Krüger National Park in Europe – a reserve that is large enough to restore the complete megafaunal community with viable populations and that is open to visitors. This continent probably does not offer the same area size, so we have to think on a smaller scale.
Perhaps this idea is just a dream, but there is nothing wrong about dreaming it. And many great success stories started being just a dream as well, so let us be inspired by this idea and hope it might one day be possible.

A great big game park in Central Europe that contains all of the original Holocene megafaunal species would have to include:
Herbivores:
- Roe deer, Capreolus capreolus
- Red deer, Cervus elaphus
- Horse, Equus ferus
- Cattle, Bos primigenius
- Wisent, Bison bonasus
- Elk, Alces alces
- Wild boar (yes, it is of course an omnivore)
Carnivores:
- Eurasian lynx, Lynx lynx
- Wolf, Canis lupus
- Brown bear, Ursus arctos 

In a suited habitat, such as the Danube delta, one could also think about adding water buffalo to the list, although the presence of this genus in the Holocene of Europe is speculative. In higher regions, there would also be ibex and chamois. Northwards to the Limes norrlandicus, one could add reindeer and rewild musk ox instead of cattle. In southern Europe, the presence of lions and leopards would be supported by archaeological data but the introduction of these animals would probably be legally problematical. Fallow deer is controversial as a native European mammal in the Holocene, so it does not have to be added necessarily.

Imagine an area large enough to house all these species was declared a nature reserve. I do not even dare to make a guess on how large such an area must be in order to house all important European megafauna species and to allow them build up a viable population. It would be a natural or semi-natural landscape, that would be shaped in interaction with the large herbivores from now on. Red deer and roe deer, perhaps also fallow deer, would live there already. The first two species to be reintroduced into the reserve would be cattle and horses, as they are the most uncomplicated. However, they would have to be certified as wild animals in the preparation of being released, so that natural selection can shape their gene pool and there would be no need for medical examinations as currently dictated for cattle in grazing projects. One consequence might be that the cattle might not be allowed to be taken from the reserve, as it is the case in Oostvaardersplassen. When choosing the cattle to be released in the reserve, a number of the best individuals of all “breeding-back” projects was chosen, together with a few pure individuals from primitive landraces to get a broad genetic basis and all aurochs traits. For the horses, there are a lot of hardy landraces that can be used as a proxy for their extinct wild type, but the question of which colour type was predominant in European wild horses is still unclear. Genetic studies suggest that four colour variants might have been present at the same time. One would have to find a consensus if they want just one type, in which picking one hardy breed alone would be sufficient, or if they want more than one colour variant to be seen in the reserve, in which case they could mix the herds.
The next step would be to reintroduce wisent and elk. While it would probably not be that problematic to get a grown, healthy elk population, one has to be careful with the wisents which still suffer from a severe inbreeding depression. One should take care of obtaining a diverse gene pool and taking healthy individuals only, otherwise the population might crash before achieving satisfying numbers.

Having reintroduced all megaherbivores into the reserve, one should wait for a few years for the herbivores to build up large, healthy populations before predators should be introduced. The reserve could be opened for visitors in the meantime.
Lynx, which are definitely the most unproblematic of the three, could be reintroduced first. The reserve would probably not be large enough for more than one pack of wolves. And the number of bears would probably be restricted to below one dozen at maximum.

Predators are controversial for many reasons and their reintroduction is connected to many problems that do not need to be repeated here. But it is part of my dream that they are part of my dream reserve. Not just out of romantic reasons. It would be very interesting to see their impact on the herbivore populations. For example, cattle seem to be in slight disadvantage to deer and horses under circumstances like in Oostvaardersplassen, when looking at the development of the population numbers. It would be interesting if predators could change that by their prey choice. Perhaps cattle would be less prayed on by wolves than deer and horses, thus reducing the competitive pressure on their population by the other two species (in German, there is a name for it: “Prädations-vermittelte Koexistenz”, meaning something like “coexistence enabled by predation”). Also, if the aurochs-like cattle start to develop a more homogeneous coat colour, part of it could be the result of predation (there is the hypothesis that predators tend to pick out individuals with deviant colours). But that effect would probably only be visible after decades.

When thinking of megafauna, I am not thinking of mammals only. The reserve could also house golden eagles, and if a certain number of carcasses is allowed to stay in the field, it would also be a paradise for vultures. Therefore, such a reserve could be a precious contribution to the conservation and reintroduction of these species.

This kind of reserve would probably be fenced, but I would like it to be open to visitors, perhaps in the form of guided tours with a jeep. It would have some major advantages. Not only would it have educational benefits, the reserve might turn into a treasure of regional development. It might even boost tourism – Europeans would not have to leave the continent in order to see large herds of big game anymore; they could have a reserve with up to nine big game species plus eagles and vultures at their doorstep. Commercial hunting could also take place in the reserve, but only for the excess individuals that need to be culled each year (don’t get me wrong, hunting for joy repels me). This, on the other hand, could also be used to select out the deviant individuals among the aurochs-like cattle, which would be in turn beneficial for the educational component.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Cattle and ontogeny

All animals change during individual development (ontogeny), and this process of changing continues until death. For “breeding-back”, it is important to look at how a bull or cow might change during its life as it is relevant for selection.

Usually, it is impossible to judge an the bull or cow properly before the age of 3 years. The bodily proportions and shape are still going to change considerably, and the horns are not nearly developed enough.
Usually, all calves are rather long-legged animals, proportioned like deer. During its life, the legs always get shorter and the trunk longer. Also, the trunk gets heavier. A bull usually does not have its full bulk until the age of 6 years (Frisch, 2010), and bulk continues increasing. So if a young bull at the age of 3 years already is proportioned and shaped like an aurochs, you can assume that it will end up heavier and more longish at reproductive age. Also, the hump is a trait that increases with age. A bull that shows no hump at the age of 3 might still develop one later on.
Also, horn seem to continue to grow all life long, and they also slightly alter their shape by continuing the curve. Horns that might not look much aurochs-like at the age of three might end up satisfying by the age of five years.

I give you some examples for changing body shape and horns in Taurus cattle now that I was able to find thanks to an extensive photo archive I was provided by Matthias Scharf from the ABU. Most of the photos are courtesy of Matthias Scharf so please do not replicate without permission.

Lamarck

On the upper photo, you see Lamarck at the age of three years. Although one would assume this bull is more or less adult based on its looks, and simply lacks the inwards-curve in its horns, he developed very clearly inwards-facing horn tips later on. Not quite as spiral-shaped as in an aurochs, but satisfying. The second photo shows him at the age of eight years.

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This nameless and extremely beautiful cow had horns that did not curve that much either when I saw her in 2013, when she was two years old. One year later, her horns developed a nice shape – in most aurochs cows, they would probably still be more curled, but those are satisfying horns.

Lerida 
Lerida is and always has been one of my favourite Taurus cows. The upper photo shows her with a nice slender body at the age of five. Three years later, she “put on some weight”, but still is a beautiful individual.

42 623
42 623 is the current breeding bull at Hellinghauser Mersch. The upper photo shows him at the age of one and a half year, he has squarely built proportions and a body of acceptable bulk. In 2015, the year the lower photo was taken, he developed a rather massive body, but the trunk-height ratio still seems to be ok, the shoulder hump is more pronounced and he is also one of the largest bulls.

We should not forget the ontogenic changes of wild-type colour as well. Phenotypical E+ is the only colour variant that shows ontogenic changes. All wildtype coloured calfs are born in a chestnut colour – during their first life months the colour changes (or: should change) to black in bulls, and cows darken only on certain areas (depending on the degree of sexual dichromatism). If the wildtype coloured calf is going to show dilution factors, it will show them later on, when the change in colour appears. Therefore, also Chianina or Podolian calfs are born in a chestnut brown colour, but their fur looses the pigment in the aftermath.  



Tauros Project: My current opinion

A while ago, I did a blog post “I am not so optimistic anymore” on the Tauros Project. By “not so optimistic” I meant that initially I thought/hoped the Tauros Project would surpass other breeding-back attempts with ease in a short time. Later on, having seen more animals of the project and an increased knowledge on genetics and animal breeding, my initial enthusiasm was replaced by a more deflated opinion. That is not to say that I turned to being pessimistic, not at all.
Now, having two years passed, I want to give a second opinion and prognosis for the project. My opinion is based solely on the scarce information that can be found on the web, and photo material of the herds.

The project has expanded nicely all over Europe, and has dozens of crossbred animals already. Some of them look really nice, and also the purebred founding individuals look good overall, although not always as tall and slender as I hoped. Of course they are not perfect yet, but they are of their first and second cross generation, so they just getting started. They have to genetically unify the founding breeds in one gene pool and then get rid of the undesired traits. Two years ago, I was worried about the large amount of Highland cattle in the project, which is used as a “quantity breed” to increase volume. I thought their undesirable traits would swamp the population and produce a high number of animals with small size, stubby body and short legs and face. This might be true for the first and second generation that includes Highland, but as Taurus cattle has shown, as long as they continue backcross them with slender southern European breeds, the undesired Highland body morph might be largely bred away in two or three generations.
The project is at such an early state that it might not be that effective to look at their first or second generation animals. It is more important to look at the founding individuals and to see what traits they have, what tells us what can be achieved in the future. Many of the southern European cattle they purchased and a number of crossbreeds have a slender and well-proportioned body, some do not. Sayaguesa seems to be the largest of the breeds included at large scale; Sayaguesa is a tall breed, but maybe it is necessary to include very tall breeds like Chianina to compensate the small size of breeds like Highland, Pajuna or Maronesa. The Tauros Project does not want to use that breed as far as I know, but maybe they are able to get their hands on really large Boskarin or semen from Maltese cattle – that would help to increase the size of the Tauros crossbreeds.
Many of the founding breeds of the Tauros Project are comparably short horned or have medium-sized horns. The project thus needs a breed with really large and thick horns to compensate that. The two largest-horned breeds of the project are Highland cattle and Maremmana; some individuals of both breeds have impressing horns indeed that fit in length and thickness, but many have horns that do not reach the dimensions of the aurochs, especially regarding thickness. Therefore, and this is just my personal impression, the Tauros Project might need a breed that truly boosts horn size, otherwise it might have problems in future generations in achieving impressive and authentic horn sizes.
Regarding horns, the project has the advantage of using Maronesa. Surely, Maronesa has its disadvantages too (small size, sometimes rather hefty bulls, short faces), but is very useful in two respects: the colour is nearly always a perfect wildtype colour, often with a well marked sexual dimorphism. That is the case only in very few breeds. And, much more important, Maronesa often have horns with a very clear inwards-curve, in both sexes. This is also a rarity in most breeds. Therefore, when they take advantage of this breed, the Tauros Project might have less problems in achieving inwards-facing horns in both sexes than most other projects.

I am very happy that the Tauros Project is using Maronesa. So far, it is the only project using that breed. I think Maronesa can be very helpful when crossed with the right breeds. Imagine a herd that is composed of Maronesa x Chianina only. It would bear a lot of potential, it would include almost all aurochs traits except for really elongated skulls. Using Maltese cattle instead of Chianina would also result in a much lower frequency of dilution alleles in the herd and add the elongated skull shape. Both combinations would still probably need some augmentation regarding horn size.  

Back to the Tauros Project. I think that the project is progressing well and they are doing a good job (according to the Rewidling Europe webpage, they have almost 300 crossbred animals by now, dispersed among several European countries). Regardless of whether they are going to achieve truly impressive sizes or horn volume, I think the project is going to produce many rather good individuals in any case. The basis is good, and many of the crossbred animals born already look satisfying. I repeat my statement that I think the Tauros cattle will resemble Taurus cattle, with minor differences because they have different founding breeds. And that is a good thing, as it means they will achieve a high resemblance to their common wild ancestor. Of course the project faces the same challenges as all cattle breeding projects: it has to unify the desired traits and get rid of the undesired ones. And since the rules of inheritance go for all projects, it will take a lot of time, especially in such a slowly reproducing species as cattle. Recessive alleles, such as the dilution factors inherited by Podolian cattle or the recessive red of Highland cattle, will continue to show up for decades, just as other undesired traits will do. But that is a problem that all projects are facing, that’s part of animal breeding.

All in all, I am very happy with the progress of the project. It is great to see how it creates one herd after the other, I enjoy looking at the animals, and I am looking forward to see the future cross animals and I am confident that there will be some really good individuals among them. I think that we are living in the golden age of “breeding back”. There are so many projects and herds in so many European countries, and all of them are promising. All of them have their own take-on to this subject, and this is positive, as there are probably multiple ways to the goal and it increases the genetic diversity of the herds in sum (I am still dreaming of one large “breeding back” metapopulation in the future).



Monday, 20 February 2017

What's so charming about the aurochs?

I have some material prepared for several posts, just not the time yet to finish them. Therefore, I ask for patience – more is to come soon. In the meantime, a more “philosophical” post.   

Some animals do have some sort of charisma. Dinosaurs are charismatic, for example – there are millions of dinosaur fans on this world, and some of them have made it their profession. Big cats also capture the fascination of people, otherwise they would not be the focus of wallpapers or there would be no cars or weapons named after them. The aurochs has a kind of charisma too. There have been scientists, artists and cattle breeders obsessed with this animal, and there are still dozens, probably hundred or perhaps even thousands of people that are interested in this bovine, many of them in a very passionate way (and there is reason to believe that the numbers are rising). So what makes this animal that fascinating?
 
Magnificent beast or ordinary cattle?
If the aurochs was not extinct, we would probably regard them as ordinary bovines. Surely, living aurochs would be an impressive sight – their size, their horns, their athletic energetic body. And some zoo visitors might even notice that their sexes have totally different colours, which is quite unusual for most mammals. But other wild bovines are very impressive too, and people do not usually go nuts about them.
I think it is mostly the fact that the aurochs is extinct that makes it that interesting in the first place. Particularly that it was evidently driven to extinction by man in recent times, and did not die out for unknown reasons some millennia ago. And it would be still around without anthropogenic influence. This makes the aurochs a lot more graspable. There is similar interest in other animals driven to extinction by man, such as the thylacine or the dodo (which, in any case, were both unique animals). It is the mere fact that we could still see these animals in flesh, living and breathing, if the actions of our species had been less consuming and destructive that provokes interest and emotions.
            Furthermore, there is something that makes the aurochs more graspable than most other extinct animals – it has living descendants that happen to be one of our most familiar livestock, cattle. But everything in the aurochs was more spectacular, wilder – its body was larger, its horns were larger, they were athletically built and powerful, of an eye-catching contrast-rich colouration and their frizzy forelocks gave them a wild and fierce look (according to people who saw them in live). And because of the fact that they are extinct they get (wrongly) associated with mammoths and the other spectacular glacial fauna (they were, however, a key part of the not less spectacular interglacial fauna). So the aurochs is on the one side an animal we can relate to, but on the other side has an aura of being wild, untamed, strong and ancient.

The fact that the aurochs has living descendants that all preserve its trait to a greater or lesser extent is what makes it really exciting. Isn’t it fascinating to see that this one cow might have horns of a shape like the wild-type that disappeared, while the other cow might be coloured exactly like a wild cow, and isn’t tempting to try unifying all those preserved optical wild-type traits in one strain? Fortunately a number of projects try exactly that. The concept is fascinating: picking the most suited breeds, crossbreeding them and trying to achieve something that optically resembles the aurochs as far as possible. And since all those suited breeds are hardy, healthy and robust enough to survive on their own, and because cattle – as direct descendants of the aurochs – probably work ecologically in a very similar if not identical manner, such a result would not only look like the aurochs but also ecologically fill its niche and probably also behave very similar. The next best thing to cloning, and exciting to watch. It is exciting to see what has been achieved so far, to watch it progressing and to think on how it might be improved. So, here we do not only have the chance of creating a close approximation to an extinct animal with living animals in flesh and blood, and not just with pen and paper as I used to do it for years, but also to fill an ecological niche that has been made vacant by human actions.

It was exactly that chance to fill a vacant ecological with animals that resemble an extinct form that got me that much into the aurochs in 2011. Now I am one of the many aurochs enthusiasts, and it is a surprisingly rich topic – it not only includes palaeontology and zooarchaeology, but also ecology, genetics and animal breeding. I am concerning myself with that topic since almost exactly six years now, and it simply does not get boring – quite the contrary, it keeps being exciting.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Some more removed Lippeaue individuals

I already did a similar post in 2016. It was on old or removed Taurus cattle from the Lippeaue herd in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany. I used a photo archive and stock list I was provided during my last visit in 2015 to pick out interesting individuals and presented them in the blog post. I covered the herd a lot already, but I found some more interesting individuals that I do not want to keep from you. These cross products can be interesting in a number of ways: either due to their breed combination, what they tell us about their parents or simply because of their looks. I hope you enjoy. All photos are curtesy of Matthias Scharf from the ABU, so please do not replicate without permission. 
  
84 025


This nameless bull was the son of Luca (Heck x Chianina) and Loxia (Luca x Sayaguesa). He looked a bit like a black version of his father-grandfather. His correct colour made him very beautiful to look at, although the other traits were not that convincing to me. He is being offered on the VFA’s sale page for a long time now, so some of you might already know him, but is not present in the herd since 2013 at least.

84 037


This bull has an interesting aspect. He is the son of Lombriz (50% Sayaguesa, 50% Heck x Chianina) and Lerida (Heck x Sayaguesa). The legs seem a bit short, and the spine is somewhat hanging (a trait that Sayaguesa often unfortunately have), but the overall impression on me is appealing – there are, however, better Lippeaue bulls and that is why it seemingly was removed.

92 576


This bull is the son of Churro, the Sayaguesa bull, and Lerida. Despite being three quarters, it has a reddish saddle, which is untypical for a bull with such a high portion of Sayaguesa. The left horn seemingly got injured.

Lambretta


This cow is the daughter of Lucio and Ludovica, thus (Heck x Sayaguesa) x (Heck x Chianina) and had a quite good aspect – horn shape and size good, colour accurate, body and proportions good. This cow seems just fine to me, but did not stay that long in the herd. Perhaps her behaviour was undesirable.

Lisette
Lisette was the daughter of Loco and Lerida, therefore was (Heck x Lidia) x (Heck x Sayaguesa). Now this cow looked really, really good. Her horn curvature was good, albeit a bit asymmetric, the face was elongated and colour and proportions perfect. This the Taurus cow that in my view had the best body shape of all, with a slender waist and a detectable hump (a trait that is comparably rare even in less-derived cattle). She lived in Klostermersch-Süd from 2005 to 2010 and left two descendants, of which none left a track in the current population. This cow looked really good to me – if the horns would have been a bit larger and more intensively curved, I would have been satisfied to 100% from the breeding perspective. However, she had some small white spots in the sternal region and I do not know anything about her behaviour. Perhaps it was problematic due to her quarter Lidia ancestry.

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This bull immediately got my interest – I must have overlooked it when I was looking for individuals of that combination in the past. It was a Sayaguesa x Chianina bull that stayed in the herd until the age of a bit more than two years (2010-2012). It is very interesting to see a bull of that combination at this age, and also perfectly wild type coloured with almost no saddle. This is the second bull of this combination that I know of with a dark colour, while cows of this combination tend to be of a beige colour (see here and here; there is one bull that resulted in a very light grey colour for whatever reason), which might indicate that Chianina has retained sexual dichromatism to a certain degree, masked under the colour dilution factors.
Of course the horns of this bull are very short, which is to b expected from this combination. But it is not so much what this particular F1 bull looks like that captures my enthusiasm about this combination, but the potential it bears if it would have been mated to the two Sayaguesa x Chinina cows (here and here) in the Lippeaue. The horn size probably would not end up spectacular, but anything else has the potential to become rather astonishing: size, body shape/proportions, skull shape, correct colour with dimorphism to some degree, and even horn curvature has potential. That’s why I was very much looking forward to see the Sayaguesa-Chianina cross herd planned by the Auerrindprojekt, which was not yet put into practise due to the death of the bull Johnny.   

Leonora


This cow was the daughter of the Sayaguesa x Heck bull Lucio and the Chianina cow Eloisa. I included her here because of her very slender, long-legged build and the correct, non-diluted colour. It is interesting that some half-Chianina cows and bulls are either completely wild type coloured, white/light grey or something inbetween. Chianina is most likely always homozygous for the at least two or maybe three colour dilution genes, so it is probably not the varying factor. Perhaps it is the Heck cattle influence: the Heck parents may be carry one or two of the dilution factors on occasion, in which case the offspring is (partly) of a diluted colour then. The Heck bull Lancelot, for example, had a quite diluted coat colour. Mator might also have passed on dilution alleles, as some of its offspring and its Dutch origin suggests.
Leonora was removed in 2007 or 2008, perhaps because of her meagre horns.

Lolaf


Lolaf was the son of Pablo and Lila – Pablo is a beautiful but rather hefty Heck x Sayaguesa bull, Lila is/was a cow with a quarter Lidia in her genealogy. So this bull was one eighth Lidia, and I think it shows in its face and somehow columnar trunk – yes, of course Lidia is probably the most athletically built taurine breed, but aging bulls develop a rather heavy, columnar trunk. Crossbred bulls, although being somewhat more muscular, have this columnar trunk already at young age as far as I can tell from the photos.  

Luke


Luke was three quarters Heck, one quarter Lidia. He seemingly has at least one dilution factor (either homozygous or heterozygous), and since both Lancelot and Mator are his grandfathers it might not be that surprising.

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This cow is interesting because it is the daughter of Luca and a Tudanca cow that was kept in the Hellinghauser Mersch herd for a short time. She has a grey diluted coat, and the chance for her getting a diluted coat was quite high, as Tudanca is homozygous for at least one kind of dilution, and Luca perhaps was too due to him being half Lancelot and half Chianina.

This cow seemingly was not kept for long and did not leave a track in the population.