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Thursday, 29 June 2017

Crossbreeding proposal: Maronesa x Chianina

I love brainstorming about new crossbreeding herds that have not been tried by any of the existing projects before, thinking about balancing the pro’s and con’s of the breeds involved and how fast you might get success. There is one crossbreeding idea that is in my mind for a few years now, and with this post I want to outline why I think that this combination would be fast and effective. I hope that someone who has more practical possibilities than I have reads it and might be inspired.
I propose a cross herd of Maronesa x Chianina. It becomes obvious why when comparing the pro’s and con’s for both breeds – I go over it step by step.

Maronesa

Maronesa is a breed from the Portuguese uplands and therefore used to precipitation and cold temperature, as you can see in their well-developed winter coat and hairy udders. It is, as all primitive landraces are, variable regarding the degree of primitiveness. There are herds that have a more derived, more domestic body, face and horns, but since one always has to pick the best individuals out of each breed, let us ignore the very derived members of the breed. Surely Maronesa has its deficiencies, and I am going to outline them later on, I am going to sum up why I consider this breed very valuable for almost all aurochs projects.
First of all, the colour is almost always identical to that of the aurochs. It does not have any of the annoying dilution alleles nor do they have tiny white spots such as some Sayaguesa or Pajuna unfortunately do. And very importantly: Maronesa is one of the very few breeds that almost always shows a consistent sexual dimorphism in colour (dichromatism). Some cows are darker than others, some are even bull-coloured, but the majority has a dark brown or reddish brown chestnut colour and bulls never retain a colour saddle. This is very valuable, as sexual dimorphism is a complicated trait that is probably not to be restorable by conventional breeding (just always picking dark bulls and lightly coloured cows in a cross herd probably will not do it). So it is very practical to have a breed where this complicated trait is still alright.
Many Maronesa have a colour that is perfectly aurochs-like
Secondly, Maronesa is one of the very few breeds that has individuals with horns curving inwards decently. This trait is a rarity among primitive breeds and you see that it is the only trait that is lacking in most individuals of breeding-back projects. Surely, there are a lot of Maronesa cows with corkscrewed horns and bulls with comparably strait horns, but also a lot with aurochs-like horns. Suitable Maronesa individuals would probably improve the horn curvature of any breeding-back project.
Horns curving inwards that decently are a rarety among aurochs-like cattle
Especially in bulls
This is why I would appreciate the use of good Maronesa in virtually any breeding-back project.

Now to the deficiencies: What is rather obvious from a lot Maronesa individuals, also the very good ones, is that their snouts are too short. Many have a paedomorphic face, some even a “bulldog face”. Of course there is variation as well, and in some cows the snout length is ok, but still needs improvement. Bulls, on the other hand, are almost always too short-snouted. Furthermore, Maronesa is not a large breed. According to the Domestic Animal Diversity Information System, the size for bulls is 140cm, for cow 130cm at the shoulders. Surely there are also larger and smaller individuals, but it is a plausible mean height and makes it about as small as Heck cattle. As a third drawback, while many cows have a good body shape and are proportioned aurochs-like, many bulls appear not that long-legged or actually short-legged and have a comparably heavy body.

Chianina

It is no secret that this Italian breed is the largest cattle breed in the world. Therefore, its quality in this respect is obvious. But Chianina are not only large, but the right individuals are also of a tall build and have a slender, tight body. Therefore, Chianina is very advantageous for achieving aurochs-like size and proportions. The skull shape is neither long nor short, nor is it paedomorphic. The horns of Chianina are unfortunately tiny and but sometimes of a useful shape. Chianina has dilution alleles on at least two loci (Dun, Agouti), perhaps even more, that remove all the pigment from the coat. One of these loci is semi-dominant and therefore easy to purge, but the others are recessive and therefore difficult to breed out again.
Chianina bull and cow with a long-legged, slender body
To sum up the pro’s and con’s of both breeds:

Maronesa

Pro:
Correct aurochs colour with well-marked sexual dimorphism
Inwards-curving aurochs-like horns in both sexes
Suited to harsh Central European climate
Some cows with aurochs-like proportions and body shape

Con:
Mostly short faced, especially the bulls
Some bulls are rather heavy
Comparably small size

Chianina

Pro:
Large and tall
Good body shape in both sexes

Con:
Horns very small
Dilution factors reducing and removing the pigment


So as you see, both breed complement each other perfectly in almost all respects. A cross herd of Maronesa x Chianina individuals bears the potential for large, aurochs-like proportioned animals in both sexes that have a powerful build with a correct colour and well-expressed sexual dichromatism. Surely, the semi-dominant and recessive dilution alleles would have to be bred out, and that takes its time, but that is a problem that all current projects face. Concerning sexual dichromatism, it is likely that Chianina has preserved some degree of sexual dichromatism masked beneath the dilution alleles, as the Sayaguesa x Chianina crosses of the ABU suggest. Choosing the right individuals would enable the achievement of a very aurochs-like horn curvature. So the results would come pretty close to the goal, and they would probably also do well in Central European climate.
But it would not be perfect, of course. For example, this combination might need some boost in horn volume. The horns of Chianina are tiny, while those of Maronesa are medium-sized to more or less long, but often not thick enough, and Chianina would shrink that further down (however, there is the chance that crossbreeding results can have horns larger than the founding breeds due to genetics, just as nobody would expect Chianina-sized horns on a Heck x Sayaguesa F2). So which breed would be suitable to boost the horn volume in a herd of good Maronesa x Chianina? I would pick well-horned Heck cattle of the Wörth lineage for a number of reasons. First of all, the number of aurochs-like breeds with truly large and thick horns is very limited. Barrosa, Cachena and Podolian breeds might have long horns, but they are usually not nearly as thick as in the most impressive Wörth Heck individuals. Texas Longhorn have impressive horns, but they are very wide-ranging and would therefore mess up the horn curvature while that of many Wörth Hecks is ok. Additionally, one would not introduce any further undesirable colour variants with Wörth Heck cattle, where dilution alleles have been largely purged out and white spots do not appear. And, another advantage, Heck cattle are suited perfectly to central European climate and develop a long and dense winter coat. So in order to achieve an aurochs-like horn volume, I would start breeding with the Maronesa x Chianina crossbreeds, breeding them as aurochs-like as possible and see how large the horns will get. Then, when the horn volume does not seem to reach the appointments, I would cautiously add one large-horned Wörth Heck cow and then use a bull that is either quarter Wörth Heck or a good F2 for further breeding, and then remove the Heck cow again.
Snout length might also be deficient in this combination. For this trait I would include a long-snouted Sayaguesa cow in the same manner as just described.

A plea for more Maronesa

Maronesa is currently used only in the Tauros Project, but one of those breeds that are very practicable for breeding-back as you get a lot of desirable traits at once. Another one is Sayaguesa, where you get traits like size, good body shape, long snouts, and horns facing forwards at once. Sayaguesa has proven its value and is therefore currently used in all aurochs projects. Maronesa surely has its deficiencies that are as obvious as its advantages, but that goes for Sayaguesa as well (such as the very reduced dichromatism, hanging back in many individuals, lyre-shaped horns in many cows). It is always the challenge of compensating the negative traits with a suitable breed and selecting against them. And as Taurus cattle have shown, it is possible to successfully correct negative traits such as small size and short snouts by using a large (Chianina) and long-snouted breed (Sayaguesa) and achieve large animals with long snouts.

The True Nature Foundation works on improving aurochs-like Maronesa at the moment. Choosing the right individuals and effective selection might produce a Maronesa strain that is very valuable for other aurochs projects. I guess that most individuals that are sold will be bulls, so it might be possible for other projects to acquire young bulls at least.
Margret Bunzel-Drüke once considered the possibility that Maronesa might be good for the Taurus cattle at the Lippeaue, but concluded that it would deplete the achieved success regarding size, long snouts and slender build, especially in bulls, again and I understand that conclusion. Individuals with inwards-facing horns are present in the Lippeaue anyway, just their abundance has to be increased. But for other projects, I think that using Maronesa in some form would be helpful, especially for achieving aurochs-like horn shapes. Even “usual” Heck cattle would profit from crossing-in Maronesa. Some Heck breeders fear that crossing with large primitive breeds would result in calving problems in pure Heck cows. This worry would not exist with Maronesa, because both breeds are of the same size. Also, Maronesa would not alter the identity of Heck cattle that much – the animals would still be of the same size, same colour and short-faced. They would just have better horns. But single crossing-in of good Maronesa  would probably make the good genes drown in the un-coordinated chaos that the Heck cattle population is as a whole. Considering the rareness of Maronesa and especially the aurochs-like Maronesa it would be a waste; it would only make sense in herds of really good Heck cattle in the hands of breeders paying attention to really aurochs-like traits, such as the former Wörth herd.


PS: Maltese cattle

One might ask why I haven’t proposed Maltese cattle as an option to cross with Maronesa instead of Chianina. They are about the same size and also excellently shaped, more long-snouted and have a wildtype coloured-coat instead of a diluted one (genes for diluted coats should be in the population though, as they were crossbred with Chianina). So they seem like a better option. But the problem is, the population of this breed is very small (2 herds consisting of 12 males and 19 females in 2015, see here), so they might be very difficult to acquire.

Monday, 26 June 2017

A response to a nonsensical blog article

Back in 2015, I had a slightly emotional rant about something that keeps on entertaining especially the English-speaking world: the “nazi cow nonsense”. Such an absurd headline is the result of people not caring about historical facts and just wanting to be entertained by or to entertain with something that sounds as absurd as a “nazi super cow”. A discreet tip: if you are about to write a headline that ludicrous, you might take one moment and scrutinize.

Anyway, in my 2015 article I covered the true motivation behind the Heck brothers’ attempts and the connection with single officials of the Nazi regime. Some weeks ago, I was addressed to a blog article written one month after my 2015 article that contains a lot of claims and mistakes that slightly upset me. I found no commentary function so I use my own blog for writing a clarification. The article has a nonsensical title, on the blog homidlikeme. I go over the mistakes and wrong claims step by step. Why is it important to dismantle defamations like that? Because it does have an effect on the world outside, people working on project might develop objections against breeding-back or breeds resulting from breeding-back as a result of these nonsensical stories, so you might do real damage by spreading it.

First of all, the author of the blog managed to misinterpret my graphic on Wikimediacommons showing a life restoration of an aurochs bull and cow. Although stated very clearly, he mistook it for a comparison between an aurochs and a Heck bull (obviously he cannot tell the difference between a male and female bovine).
Amusingly, the author also assumes that aurochs were killed off in an act of self-defence from those “un-friendly forest creatures”.

The author of the article claims that the German dictator “suggested that resurrecting an extinct megabeasts[sic] would be good for national morale (i.e. propaganda)”, which is plain wrong, invented nonsense. There is no evidence that this man ever heard of the project of the Heck brothers, not to mention ever spoke a sentence containing “aurochs”. He did not know about the project, and if he would have known, he would very likely not have cared about it. In contrast to Herman Göring.
The author further writes “Heinz and Lutz Heck were already keen on the idea of reverse-engineering a copy of the extinct Aurochs, and the money and breeding stock the Nazi war machine could provide as it steam-rolled over Europe gave them everything they needed to get started”. Plain wrong, do your history homework or at least read the Wikipedia article! The Heck brothers started their work in the 1920s, and their motivation was free of any ideological nonsense and not commanded from some Nazi official. While it is true that Lutz Heck actively profited from having the hunting-fanatic Göring on his side, his brother Heinz, whose stock is the base of all living Heck cattle, evidently avoided contact with the regime.

With the sentence “Heck cattle can reach a maximum height of 1.4m and a weight of 600kg, which makes them one of the largest breeds of domestic cattle available”, the author exposes his lack of basic knowledge about cattle. Those size data make Heck cattle average, compared to modern day cattle of intensified agriculture actually smaller, cattle. He probably never stood next to a living bull if he considers the height of 1.4 that gigantic.

Then, the author quotes the statement of UK farmer Derek Gow saying that his Heck herd were the most aggressive animals he ever worked with. I already discussed the temperament of Heck cattle in this post. Cattle behaviour depends a lot on socialisation, also in Heck cattle. If you take Heck cattle from a grazing project, that are used to have a lot of space and are not used to being handled like farm cows, and you do not have experience in keeping cattle stemming from those circumstances, you should not be surprised that you are unable to handle them.

Now I want to address a few words to the author directly: claiming that the Heck brothers attempts were “performed in a grossly unethical way” baseless and does not make any sense, claiming the breed has a “genocidal past” is a repelling defamation and an insult to all grazing projects and Heck cattle breeders working with this cattle breed. You might not be aware of this, but writing stories like that can actually do real damage to actual projects in the world outside. So next time before writing something absurd like “nazi super cows”, please do the required homework or just keep your mouth closed.

Ironically you write “Heck cattle have struggled to overcome their association with the Nazi regime”. Exactly, because of people behaving like you.

PS.: The “what the Heck” pun is getting old.


Saturday, 24 June 2017

New anatomical sketches of aurochs bulls

Last week I did some new anatomical sketches based on a number of bull skeletons – the Sassenberg bull, Braunschweig bull, Vig bull and Kopenhagen bull. As usual, I chose photos of the skeletons available on the internet or books, corrected certain aspects if necessary (f.e. the placement of the shoulder blade or flexion of the hind legs is often wrong in mounted skeletons), tracked the skeletons out and reconstructed the life appearance of the animals with a ballpoint pen. I would have done the same with other skeletons as well, so that I don’t always do the same individuals, but for many of the other skeletons I was not able to find photos that allowed to correct the mistakes in the mounts and therefore a life reconstruction would not be fruitful. There is also quite a lack of mounted aurochs cow skeletons in museums, otherwise I would have done a series for cows as well.

The photos of the skeletons for the Braunschweig and Sassenberg bull were scanned from Walter Frisch’s book Der Auerochs (2011), the Kopenhagen bull is based on a photo I was sent by Markus Bühler and the Vig bull sketch is based on this photo, on which I corrected the position of the hind leg to what I consider anatomically correct.

It is hard to guess how bulky the animal was in life without getting a three-dimensional impression of the ribcage, so I had to guess for the abdomen. Also, the older the bull the heavier. Because of that, I chose to illustrate the bulls as fully grown but not too old. Something that is always the same in all living wild cattle, no matter which genus (be it Bos, Bison, Syncerus or Bubalus) is that the waist is always narrower than the belly, producing a more or less trapezoidal body shape. Since this trait is universal in living wild bovines, we must assume it was also the case for the aurochs. Only in the Sassenberg bull sketch I experimented with a less slanting line of the baculum, giving it a bit more “domestic” look. A trait that is very obvious in all aurochs skeletons are the high shoulder spines, creating a hump in life that is also universal to all wild bovines. The Sassenberg bull seems to have had the smallest hump in this selection, and the Kopenhagen bull the largest. All in all, the Kopenhagen bull probably looked like a large, massive and athletic Spanish fighting bull in life, also because its horns are not as large and wide-ranging as in the other skeletons. This bull, if it was black, might be a good comparison.

Looking at the existing cattle breeds on this world, Spanish fighting cattle (Lidia) and Corriente might have the overall morphology that comes closest to the aurochs. However, it is also likely that morphology adapts after several generations living under wild condition as a result of natural selection and phenotypic plasticity (f.e. see here).


Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Taurus bulls of Olaf Nowacki

With this post, I want to give a portrait for two interesting Taurus bulls which both were born in the Lippeaue and purchased by Olaf Nowacki. Olaf Nowacki was a Taurus cattle breeder from Flensburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany who had a passion for the aurochs. At first, he started with Heck cattle, but decided that he wanted to have larger animals, so he purchased two young Taurus bulls from the ABU in 2008, one named Lupio and the other one later to be called Arnulf. My attention to these bulls was drawn when I discovered a photo of Arnulf on a Facebook page claiming it was a Heck x Chianina bull reaching 170cm at the shoulders. I had an email correspondence with Mr. Nowacki’s daughter Judith Fiedler, who kindly provided me with lots of information and photos and then I decided to do portraits about those interesting bulls. Many thanks!

At first I was sceptical of a size of 170cm for both bulls, but I was told that Mr. Nowacki measured both bulls with a yard stick and since we found out that the Hellinghauser Mersch breeding bull 42 623 reaches 170cm at least, I happily consider it absolutely plausible. Taurus cattle are simply large cattle. Lupio was accidentally poisoned by the neighbour in 2013 unfortunately, and Arnulf was sold last year. Now I am going to give a portrait for the bulls respectively.

All photos, unless stated otherwise, were kindly provided by Judith Fiedler, so please do not use without permission.

Arnulf

As I said, I discovered that bull on Facebook.  The source was claiming that Arnulf was a Heck x Chianina, and I did not believe that for two main reasons: it was obviously a bull from the Lippeaue, and no animals of that combination were born there since the 2000s, and it did not look like that at all. It looked much more like a Sayaguesa cross. So I asked Mrs. Fiedler for the ear tag number of the bull so that I could trace down its descent in the Lippeaue stock lists. It turned out that Arnulf is a son of Lombriz (50% Sayaguesa, 50% Heck x Sayaguesa) and Lale (half Heck x Sayaguesa half Heck x Chianina), and therefore a third-generation wild mix of the three main breeds making up Taurus cattle.


As you see on the photos, he had a correct aurochs bull colour without dilutions or saddle. His horn curvature is acceptable average as well. However, his legs are short by aurochs standards (or the trunk long, depending on the way you look at it). I was told that he was very gentle in behaviour.
The photo below shows a son of Arnulf at the age of three years. I think especially the Chianina descent is obvious in its body shape, head and horns (compare f.e. here).

Lupio

This bull must have been a very impressive sight. He was a son of Lucio (Heck x Sayaguesa) and the Chianina cow Eloisa, and had a well-developed hump, a correct black colour and horns of a good curvature that were not all that tiny – all in all he resembled his father quite well, a surprising fact considering his half-Chianina descent.
Lupio as a very young bull, photo by Matthias Scharf from the ABU

Monday, 19 June 2017

Summer is coming!

Today I finished my last exam for this semester, what means that for me, summer has begun. This also means that the months of lethargy on this blog are over; I am going to fabricate a number of blogposts and artworks as soon as a I can. So for today, this is what you can expect to come during the next weeks:
  • A post on the genetic background of morphological traits and its implications for breeding
  • Some posts (or one big post) on the big question “Ancient Europe: one big forest or savannah?”
  • Portraits of two interesting bulls
  • Some more artworks and reconstructions on paper
  • The finishing of my new aurochs models (WIP photos about to come)  
  • I am going to start doing another aurochs horn model scale 1:1. Perhaps, but I am not sure yet if I will find the time and money, also a complete aurochs bull head 1:1 in trophy style.


Of course these ideas do cost me some time and effort, especially the upper two require a lot of literature and web research I was not capable of during the semester, but I promise that I am going to do my best during the next weeks. I have also been planning to some more general posts and also get in more species diversification, I just never got to it in the past. But I am going to try getting to it this time.