Aurochs

Scientific name: Bos primigenius Scientific classification:

Phylum: Chordata Class: Mammalia Order: Artiodactyla Family: Bovidae When did it become extinct? The last known aurochs died in 1627. Where did it live? The aurochs was found throughout Europe, the Middle East, and into Asia, with subspecies in North Africa and India.

Most of the cattle breeds we know today are descended from the huge prehistoric cattle known as aurochs. These large animals roamed the woods and glades of Europe and Asia for thousands of years, until the last of the species, a female, died in Poland in 1627.

As the aurochs only disappeared in quite recent times, there are lots of accounts of what it looked like and how it behaved. The males were very large animals—1.8 m at the shoulder and 900 kg—significantly larger than most of the cattle breeds we have today. Both the males and females had impressive horns that curved forward and slightly inward, and the male in particular looked like a typical but very powerfully built bull. Unlike modern breeds of cattle, the male and female aurochs were a different color. A bull was said to be black with a pale stripe along his spine, while the female was more reddish brown.

Aurochs—The aurochs was the ancestor of most modern cattle, albeit significantly larger than most modern breeds. Both males and females feature prominently in ancient cave art. (Cis Van Vuure)
Auroch Drawing
Aurochs—This old drawing, by an unknown artist, clearly shows the distinctive horns of the aurochs. (Cis Van Vuure)

According to historic accounts, aurochs lived in family groups that were made up of females, calves, and young bulls. As the bulls grew older, they formed groups of their own, and the large, mature bulls were solitary, only mixing with others of their kind during the breeding season. Like other types of cattle, the aurochs were completely herbivorous and lived on a diet of grasses, leaves, fruits such as acorns, and even the bark of trees and bushes during the harsh winter months.

The aurochs, particularly the bulls, were said to be very aggressive, and they were apparently very difficult to domesticate, but about 9,000 years ago, in the Middle East, early humans did exactly that, giving us many of the cattle breeds we have today. A large animal with an aggressive nature would not have been easy to look after, so our ancestors selectively bred these animals to make them more docile. Selective breeding was also used to produce types of cattle that could yield copious amounts of milk. The udders of the female aurochs were far smaller than the capacious glands in between a modern cow's back legs.

Humans domesticated many other animals apart from the aurochs, and it was this change from a hunter-gatherer existence to an agricultural one that spelled the end for the aurochs. Over centuries and millennia, humans changed the habitats in which the aurochs lived. They cut down the forests to plant crops or to make room for their domesticated animals to graze and browse. The land they chose for their first agricultural attempts were those areas with the richest soils: river deltas, valleys, and fertile wooded plains. These were the aurochs' natural habitat, and they were forced into areas where the food was perhaps not quite as nutritious. The large size and formidable temperament of these animals made them very popular hunting targets for food and sport. Habitat loss, competition with their domesticated relatives, and hunting all contributed to the gradual disappearance of the aurochs. In 1476, the last known aurochs lived in the Wiskitki and Jaktorow forests, both of which are in present-day Poland. These last two populations of aurochs were owned by the Duke of Mazovia, and as they were favored animals for hunting, they eventually received royal protection, making it an offense for anyone other than a member of the royal household to kill an aurochs. Unfortunately, what is now Poland fell into turbulent times, and many kings came and went in quite a short period of time. During this era, the protection of the aurochs was much less of a priority, and the last two populations got smaller and smaller through neglect and hunting. From 1602, records show that aurochs were only found in Jaktorow Forest, and a royal decree was issued in 1604 to protect the remaining individuals. This was too little too late, and by 1627, the species was extinct—the forests of central Europe would no longer hear the bellow of an aurochs bull.

♦ The ancestors of the aurochs are believed to have evolved in India around 1.5 to 2 million years ago, from which time they spread throughout the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. For much of their existence, the earth was going through ice ages and intervening warm periods, and as the aurochs were not adapted to survive in intensely cold environments, their range probably increased as the ice sheets withdrew and contracted as the ice sheets extended south.

♦ The aurochs died before photography was invented, so we have no photographs, and considering that this was once a very common animal, there are not many complete skeletons in the world's museums. The image of the aurochs lives on in cave paintings, and the La Mairie cave (Dordogne, France) pictures, which date back to around 15,000 years ago, show a bull aurochs with two females.

♦ In the 1920s, two German zoologist brothers speculated that the aurochs could be effectively brought back from the dead by selectively breeding modern cattle for aurochs traits. Their experiments quickly produced cattle with some strong similarities to the aurochs. These animals, known as Heck cattle, do have some of the characteristics of the aurochs, but they can only ever be an approximation of the extinct animal and an interesting experiment in selective breeding.

♦ Some animal breeders and zoologists have suggested that the fighting bulls of Spain have many aurochslike characteristics and so perhaps they represent the closest living relatives of these extinct beasts.

♦ There is an ongoing, intense debate on how Europe looked after the end of the last ice age. One group of scientists believes that all of Europe was covered by dense forest until humans came along and started chopping it all down. Another group supports the idea that feeding and trampling by large animals like the aurochs opened up and maintained large glades and paths within the forest. Bialowieza Forest, a World Heritage Site and biosphere reserve on the border between Poland and Belarus, is the last remnant of this European wildwood.

Further Reading: van Vuure, T. "History, Morphology and Ecology of the Aurochs (Bos primigenius)" Lutra 45 (2002): 1-16.

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  • Lukas
    Why did humans domesticate the auroch?
    8 years ago
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    When did aurochs become extinct?
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  • Hazel
    What kind of bull isaurochs?
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    When did the auroch disappear?
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  • Patricia
    Did aurochs have udders?
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  • DOROTHY
    Which modern breeds of cattel are the closest relatives to the auroch?
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