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21st Century Auroch
Teacher Contributed

Cows Gone Wild

Student Exploration

Now That's A Cow!

Humans have a long association with cows. We know this association goes back at least 11,000 years (and probably much longer) from Paleolithic cave paintings. Take a look at some of these paintings. The "cows" you see are Aurochs (Bos primigenius). They are the species of bovine that humans domesticated to form our modern day cows.

Looking at the cave paintings of aurochs, you may get the sense that they were a bit different than our domesticated cattle. The characteristics which made aurochs successful in the wild were not the characteristics that humans thought were most useful. For example, packing on lots of meat may be a great trait in a cow for a cattle rancher, but if that meat hampers mobility, then it can make a cow an easy target to predators. This is one of the differences between artificial selection and natural selection. Go here to get a taste of what it's like to encounter a wild cow.

The Chillingham cattle are a unique example of wild cattle because of the length of time they have been left to their own devices. Because of this long time period (over 600 yrs.), they probably give us a clearer picture of "wild" bovine behavior than any other cows now on the planet. However, it does not take 600 years for noticeable changes to appear in bred species once the artificial selection of breeding is stopped. In fact, it was the observation of the tendency for animals bred for specific traits to revert to a "wild" form as soon as the artificial selection stopped that led people to believe species were immutable before Wallace and Darwin proposed their theory of natural selection.

You can go here to find out about people who are trying to bring back the auroch as part of an effort to restore the wilderness of Europe.

Extension Investigation

Use the below resources to answer the following questions

  1. Where were cows domesticated?
  2. How will genome sequencing be used in the quest to restore the auroch?
  3. How will selective breeding be used in the quest to restore the auroch?
  4. What was the geographic range of the Aurochs?
  5. How does Julius Cesar's statement of Aurochs compare to our modern day image of cows? Be as specific as you can.
  6. One of the reasons scientists feel the auroch would aid the restoration of Europe's wildscape is that the native plants evolved in the presence of aurochs. Given the changes in the human populations since aurochs roamed Europe, comment on the validity of this approach. Be as specific in your reasoning as possible.

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