Breeding Ancient Animals?

In 1627, the last of the aurochs, which was the predecessor of domestic cattle, died in Poland’s Jaktorów Forest. Now, a group of scientists hope to, in a manner of speaking, bring the aurochs back from extinction. How is this possible?

An Aurochs battles a Eurasian Wolf pack
Drawn by Heinrich Harder for a 30 collector card set entitled, “Tiere der Urwelt” (Animals of the Prehistoric World), 1916
Source: Wikimedia Commons via “The Wonderful Paleo Art of
Heinrich Harder” at CopyrightExpired.com

The Aurochs

The aurochs once inhabited Europe, Asia, and North Africa. They were herbivores. Bulls stood from five to six feet tall while cows were slightly shorter. They sported large horns that curved in multiple directions. When fighting each other, they would apparently lock horns and attempt to push each other backward.

The aurochs were eventually domesticated into at least two separate subspecies: Zebu cattle in South Asia and the domestic cattle we know today.

The Nazi Breeding Experiments

In 1920, two brothers named Heinz and Lutz Heck were the directors of the Berlin and Munich zoos, respectively. For two decades, they attempted to recreate the aurochs using wild cattle from central and southern Europe. The idea was to genetically purify cattle to the form they held during the time of the so-called Aryan race.

The Luck brothers began cross-breeding strains of cattle. The resulting animal, now known as heck cattle, was a hardy breed who was considered at the time to be a resurrection of the aurochs. In truth, however, there were many differences between heck cattle and aurochs. Most of the heck cattle were destroyed at the end of World War II. However, about 2,000 still exist today.

“The Nazis wanted to recreate the aurochs to evoke the power of the folklores and legends of the Germanic peoples. Between the two wars there was thinking that you could selectively breed animals – and indeed people – for Aryan characteristics that were rooted in runes and folklore. Young men hunted these bulls as preparation for battle and leadership in war. Hunting was a very big part of what people like Goering did. This was something that was considered very manly to do.” ~ Derek Gow, Hitler has only got one bull (and it’s alive and well in the West Country)

The TaurOs Project

The TaurOs Project is mankind’s most recent attempt to, in effect, reengineer the aurochs. It’s a joint project between Stichting Taurus and several European universities. While back-breeding an actual aurochs is believed to be impossible, the Project hopes to create a form of cattle that is as close as possible to it.

The stated purpose of this project (and others like it) is to fill ecological niches. In other words, when mankind domesticated the aurochs, it supposedly left an empty niche in certain ecosystems. However, that niche can’t be filled by today’s domesticated cattle. Cattle have been bred to be docile and productive. They are, in effect, a creation of mankind rather than evolution. Hence, they may lack the wild traits needed to survive in nature.

The TaurOs Project hopes to create new breeds with these ancient wild traits. The theory is that original features of the aurochs are still present in certain breeds of cattle and can be brought together via crossbreeding and selective breeding. The resulting cattle would then be reintroduced into large rewilding reserves.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

These sorts of experiments, in our opinion, are at once exciting and frightening. The near recreation of extinct species is an intriguing idea. Who knows what species could ultimately be brought back from extinction?

On the other hand, the TaurOs Project and rewilding in general are strange, almost anti-human concepts. They seek to restore ecosystems to a pre-human state. In other words, the arrival of humans upset the pristine (and mythical) balance of nature and now we must seek to fix it.

“Lost in the mix is a very important question. What’s so great about ancient ecosystems anyway? In truth, there is very little, if any, scientific evidence that pre-human ecosystems were superior to the ones that we enjoy today. Many ecosystems do just fine with both native and non-native plants and animals. They’re just as productive and they contain just as many species.” ~ David Meyer, The Pleistocene Rewilding?

But scientists and conservationists remain driven to recreate historical ecosystems. And admittedly, we can understand some of the fascination. However, there is a curious irony to the whole thing.

“Nature doesn’t exist in a steady state. It’s always changing, always evolving. The only way to keep it from doing so is with lots of human interference. And if that’s the case, then what’s the point of returning to a pre-human ecosystem? Why not just let nature evolve on its own?” ~ David Meyer, The Pleistocene Rewilding?

 

Guerrilla Explorer’s Man vs. Nature Coverage

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5 Responses to Breeding Ancient Animals?

  1. Pingback: Wild West Mystery - Who Killed the Buffalo? - Guerrilla Explorer

  2. Pingback: The Pleistocene Rewilding? - Guerrilla Explorer

  3. Pingback: On Heck Cattle, Aurochs and Nazis | Thrill Seeking Behavior

  4. Excellent investigative work there! The mythology surrounding the auroch is so rich and strange, but the Nazi connection there just takes it over the edge for me. Thanks for writing this.