Aurochs

Extinct in 1627
  • Aurochs
  • Aurochs

The Aurochs – first European species in our Lost Zoo

The aurochs is an extinct type of large wild cattle that inhabited Europe, Asia and North Africa. It is the ancestor of all domestic cattle breeds. The wild aurochs is one of the largest herbivores in postglacial Europe. Its size appears to vary by region: in Europe, northern populations are bigger than those from the south. In the north the aurochs has a shoulder height of 155–180 cm in bulls and 135–155 cm in cows. Also in their body mass aurochs show some variability. Some reach around 700 kg, whereas those from the late-middle Pleistocene are estimated to weigh up to 1,500 kg.

Aurochs fighting with wild wolves
Aurochs panted in 18th century

Aurochs fighting with wild wolves
(Click to view larger image).

Aurochs panted in 18th century
(Click to view larger image).

Not only the individual variability, but also sexual dimorphism between bulls and cows is strongly expressed. Cows are significantly shorter than bulls and the horns of bulls are larger, with the curvature more strongly expressed than in cows. However, the horns of the aurochs are in both sexes characteristic in size, curvature and orientation. They are curved in three directions: upwards and outwards at the base, then swinging forwards and at the tips inwards and upwards again. The horns can reach 80 cm in length and 10-20 cm in diameter. Aurochs have a strong sex dimorphism not only in the body size and horns but also in the body color. Calves are born with a chestnut colored fur. Young bulls change their coat color after a few months into a dark deep brown or black, whereas the cows retain the reddish-brown color.

Aurochs in Lascaux painting
Aurochs panted in 18th century

Aurochs in Lascaux painting
(Click to view larger image).

Aurochs-like cattle which was kept in Berlin Zoo
(Click to view larger image).

The oldest aurochs remains have been found in India and are dated to about 2 million years ago. Later the species migrated to the east and to the west and reached Europe about 270,000 years ago.
Because of the wide distribution three subspecies of aurochs are recognized, namely the Indian aurochs, the North African aurochs and the Eurasian aurochs. Only the Eurasian subspecies survived until recent times.

Aurochs-like cattle which is reintroduced to in Poland Aurochs painted in 16th century

Aurochs-like cattle which is reintroduced to in Poland
(Click to view larger image).

Aurochs painted in 16th century
(Click to view larger image).

The Indian aurochs once inhabited India. It was the first subspecies of the aurochs to appear. It lived in South India until 4.400 years ago. From about 6500 years ago, this subspecies was domesticated in semiarid zones in Southern Asia as the zebu. Fossil remains indicate that for the next 2.000 years wild Indian aurochs besides domesticated zebu cattle could be found in India. The North African aurochs once lived in the North African woodland and shrub-land. Originally it migrated from the Middle East to Africa.
The North African aurochs was morphologically very similar to the Eurasian, but genetically distinct. Old depictions indicate that North African aurochs may have had a light saddle marking on its back. The subspecies may become extinct prior to the Middle Ages.

Skull of Aurochs@Berlin NH Museum Lower jaw of Aurochs@Cattle museum,Iwate

Skull of Aurochs
@Berlin NH Museum
(Click to view larger image).

Lower jaw of Aurochs
@Cattle museum,Iwate
(Click to view larger image).

The Eurasian aurochs once ranged from the Atlantic to the Pacific across taigas, riparian zones and mixed forests of Europe, Siberia, Central and East Asia. It declined in numbers along with other megafauna species by the end of Pleistocene, but was still widespread in Europe during the time of the Roman Empire. The Romans liked to use the aurochs as popular battle beasts in their arenas. Excessive hunting began and continued until the species was nearly extinct. By the 13th century, aurochs existed only in small numbers in Eastern Europe. As the population declined, hunting ceased and the royal court used gamekeepers to provide open fields for grazing for the aurochs. The gamekeepers were exempted from local taxes in exchange for their service. Poaching aurochs was punishable by death. In 1564, only 38 animals are still known. Nevertheless the aurochs could not be saved from extinction, and the last recorded aurochs died in 1627 in the Polish Jaktorów Forest. The causes of its extinction are hunting, narrowing of habitat due to the development of farming, and diseases transmitted by domestic cattle.
The Eurasian aurochs were domesticated into modern taurine cattle breeds around 8.000 years ago in the Middle East, and possibly also at the same time in the Far East. For 2013, the FAO estimated global cattle numbers at 1.47 billion. This is the largest number of all domestic mammal species.

Skeletal specimen of Aurochs@Copenhagen NH Museum

Skeletal specimen of Aurochs@Copenhagen NH Museum
(Click to view larger image).

Many zoos today keep different cattle breeds, especially less derived breeds, and some zoos even try to breed aurochs-like cattle as the brothers Lutz and Heinz Heck did in Germany in the zoos in Berlin and Munich during the 1920/30ies with the aim to breed an effigy of the aurochs. The Heck brothers realized that some primitive cattle breeds still have characteristics of the wild aurochs like the color and hair structure of the fur, the shape of the horns and some aspects of their behavior. They found such aurochs-like characteristics in the less derived cattle breeds on Corsica and in the fighting bulls in France and Spain. They crossbred these cattle over generations and used for the breeding only animals with the strongest resemblance to the aurochs. At the end of the 1930ies, so many some aurochs-like cattle are already kept that they could be successfully reintroduced again into the former aurochs’habitats in Poland and East Prussia, where they survived until World War II. Like most other animals in the Berlin zoo, also the large founder herd of the aurochs-like cattle was killed during the war, but a smaller group of some aurochs cattle survived in the Munich zoo. Of course, all these cattle are not aurochs, but domesticated cattle with an appearance of an aurochs. However, their shape, color and behavior could give us a living idea of the wild aurochs, which was in former times one of the largest wild mammals in Europe.

Aurochs enclosure in LOST ZOO

Aurochs enclosure in LOST ZOO
(Click to view larger image).

Of course such attempts to reconstruct an extinct species by cross-breeding of less derived domestic breeds as well as the conservation of such “primitive” domestic breeds as an example for human culture fascinate scientists like Dr. Shoda who investigate domestication effects over decades. It is also no wonder that the aurochs as the ancestor of so many different domestic breeds and individual modern cattle is one of the favorite animal species of Dr. Shoda. And we are proud that our LOST ZOO is the only zoo which keeps the real wild aurochs and not only the aurochs-like cattle.

Executive Curator
JURGEN LANGE

Aurochs

The herbivore Aurochs live in the steppes and taigas as well as in the riparian zones and mixed forests of Europe, Asia and North Africa. Because of its wide distribution three subspecies evolved: the Indian, North African and Eurasian subspecies, which was one of the largest herbivores in Europe. It is the ancestor of all domestic taurine cattle. The Indian subspecies was domesticated into the zebu-like cattle and the Eurasian subspecies into all other cattle breeds.

The Indian subspecies became extinct about 4400 years ago and the North African subspecies in the early Middle Ages. Only the Eurasian subspecies survived because of its protection in East Europe until 1627, when the last female died a natural death.

Height at withers: 155-180 cm in bulls and 135-155 cm in cows, animals in the south of its wide distribution are smaller.

Body weight: about 700 kg (adult bull)

Horns: up to 80 cm in length and 10-20 cm in diameter

Habitat: In Europe marshy terrain, riparian zones and mixed forests. In summer time mainly a grazer and more a browser in winter time.

Extinction: Already 2500 years ago aurochs had disappeared from southern Greece. By the 13th century, the aurochs' range was restricted to North East Europe. In 1564 only 38 animals are still registered and in 1627 the last living aurochs died in Poland.

Animal Exhibition
Aurochs