The aurochs is an ancestor to all the globally occurring cattle. Currently, no species is alive; however, it has not been very long since the last animal was killed in 1627 in Poland.
Many human testimonies exist about aurochs, such as paintings on the Pleistocene cave walls and skeletal remains. The Romans used to hunt the aurochs as they made hunting horns from their horns.
The distribution of aurochs spreads from Eurasia and North Africa. The major reason behind their decline was hunting; however, domestication has also played a crucial role as it had various primary and secondary impacts. As agriculture spread, the habitat of aurochs also transformed. During domestication, the wild relatives of the aurochs were killed by the domesticators to eliminate them as they were considered competitors, threats, and a source of annoyance.
The aurochs used to roam around Europe and Asia before getting extinct in the early 17th century. Aurochs has played a crucial role in maintaining a mixed and semi-open landscape constituting diverse ecosystems. This is extremely important for developing agriculture which started around 10,000 years ago.
However, due to increased hunting, loss of habitat, and hybridization with domestic cattle, decreased auroch population drastically. It also resulted in its range to restrict to majorly eastern Europe, where it became extinct too.
The knowledge related to the appearance, behavior, and ecology of auroch is derived from their archaeological remains, prehistoric paintings on cave walls, like those in Lascaux and Chauvet. The 16th century was marked as the last surviving population of aurochs in Poland.
Compared to the modern cattle, aurochs were long-legged according to the evidence available, were around 1.8 meters in height, and were strong and agile. In addition, Aurochs had long and angular horns, defending themselves against predators like wolves. The aurochs was the third heaviest animal in Europe after the woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros. The adult males used to weigh more than 1000 kg.
The origin of aurochs dates back to 2 million years in India during the Pleistocene epoch. However, later, the aurochs population started to spread to other parts of Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe. It has been studied that the aurochs have spent most of their life along with other interglacial animals such as the European water buffalo with fluctuating climate. They used to migrate to the Mediterranean area during winters and traveled towards the north in summers.
Domestication of the aurochs took place in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent for the first time, around 10,000 years ago. As a result of independent events of domestication, two prominent taxa emerged, which were genetically distinct populations of wild aurochs occurring in different geographical regions.
All across Europe, these domestic cattle became extremely common due to the migration of farmers across the continent. During migration, these cattle interbred with the wild aurochs and with one another. Therefore, three major factors determine the genetic makeup of the European domestic cattle: human migration, crossbreeding, and gene flow with the aurochs.
In the past 10,000 years, humans have been selecting species regarding milk and meat production and physical strength. Therefore, as a result, some characteristics that are essential for survival have also disappeared.
The aurochs’ range reduced significantly by the 13th century, mainly due to hunting and habitat loss. The last wild population was being managed in Poland and survived due to the protection given by law. The population of aurochs was being monitored until the 16th century; however, the concern started to diminish after that. This led to further decline in the species, and the aurochs started to suffer from diseases and faced competition from domestic cattle for resources, and at last, in 1627, the last animal left also died.
Ecology and distribution
There are various contrasting assumptions regarding the habitat of the aurochs. The evidence to support these assumptions are rooted in the investigation of fossil remains of the extinct animal. Most studies suggested that throughout the past centuries, dense forests dominated the landscapes in Europe. As a result, aurochs were distributed in the marshlands alongside river banks. In addition, the presence of certain mineral isotopes which are exclusively present in marshlands in the fossil remains of aurochs supported its distribution in marshes or floodplains.
According to some scientists, these primitive cattle breeds did not possess the potential to inhabit and reproduce in wide-open landscapes without human help. Other fossil researchers proposed that habitats of aurochs resembled that of the African Forest Buffalos.
Some studies also reported evidence of aurochs inhabiting open grasslands and grazing fields where they formed a community with other grazers. In addition, the investigation of fossil remains of aurochs confirmed the presence of the hypsodont jaw, which is exclusive to grazers. So, it can be inferred that the food choice of this species resembled that of modern domestic livestock.
Biological historians suggested that aurochs’ population was distributed in Europe, Northern parts of African, the Gulf regions, and central Asian countries. Some regions of China widely colonized these primitive cattle around 3,000 years ago as many fossil remains were found in Eastern China extending to Tibet.
At the advent of the last two centuries before the extinction of aurochs, the habitat of aurochs came under the influence of human population growth. As a result, their issues like habitat fragmentation initiated, which ultimately became reasons for its extinction. Eventually, the species population was only limited to the outskirts of northeastern Europe.
Extinction is not an abrupt event. Instead, it occurs as a steady long-term process derived from different factors. The extinction of aurochs also took place slowly and gradually, initiated in the 5th century BC. In the initial phases, the aurochs population started disappearing from some parts of Greece.
Later by the 13th century AD, the population had almost vanished from other parts of the world. Finally, the species was only limited to Poland and some other eastern regions of Europe. However, archeological records from the 14th-17th century reported the species presence in Bulgaria, Transylvania, and Moldavia.
At the beginning of the 17th century, aurochs were only left in Poland. As a result, they were given the status of highly endangered species. Initially, to protect animal populations, hunting was prohibited in Poland for the general public. Later this restriction was extended to the nobles and royals as the population of aurochs was rapidly declining. However, ceasing hunting remained the only effective solution for curbing this issue.
Realizing the sensitivity of this problem, the Royals of Poland hired gamekeepers and designated grazing fields for nourishing the remaining members of the aurochs population. The gamekeepers were also exempted from government taxes in return for their services. In addition, the government also imposed a death penalty on anyone excused of pouching aurochs.
Despite all these efforts, the population of aurochs failed to survive as it was too late. Various factors contributed to this extinction, but the following are some major causes:
- Habitat fragmentation and destruction due to agricultural activities
- Transmission of contagious diseases in domestic aurochs
According to records, the last surviving member of the aurochs’ population, a female, met a natural death in 1627 in the Jaktorów Forest, Poland.
From the past, some years, efforts for creating an animal possessing similar behavioral, physiological, and genetic traits as the aurochs have paced up. The first attempt was made in the 1920s in Germany to breed a dummy of aurochs. By the 1990s, the efforts further strengthened, and various rewilding programs were initiated. This time, the aim was to imitate the structural features of aurochs and the behavioral characteristics.
These projects involved cross-breeding between some closely related cattle breeds such as Iberian or Podolian cattle to retain the herbivorous traits in the first phase. The genome of the subsequently obtained cross-bred variants is then compared with that of the 6,700 years old fossil remains of aurochs.
With these efforts, scientists are hopeful that they will succeed in creating a replica of the extinct aurochs and introducing it in wildlife reserves in Europe. This will lead to the restoration of a lost species while improving ecosystem resilience and promoting eco-tourism.
The major motivation behind these reintroduction initiatives is the desire to create naturally pleasing aesthetic open landscapes. Most of the European landscape was dominated by dense forests during the 16th and 17th centuries; therefore, aurochs’ population was restricted to open marshlands along the riverbanks. However, with a stable herbivore population and human management, open grassland ecosystems and grazing fields can be established again.
Various efforts are being made at the genetic level by the Polish Foundation for Recreating the Aurochs (PFOT) to revive the lost species. DNA and associated genetic material have been extracted from the fossils of aurochs to return the animal into Polish forests. Scientists are hopeful that by using modern biotechnological and genetic engineering tools, they will create an animal having close physical and behavioral resemblance with the aurochs.