Before there was the cow, there was the auroch, a sinewy beast that roamed Eurasia by the millions. And over thousands of years, humans bred the creature into the millions of milk-and-steak-machines we have today. The last auroch, however, died in the 17th century. A group of scientists now want to bring back the auroch by selectively breeding modern cows — domestication, but in reverse.
Lately, a "de-extinction" movement to bring back long-gone creatures like the woolly mammoth and the passenger pigeon has been afoot. This slightly fantastical idea relies on animal cloning, a technique that works rarely, but just often enough to give radical thinkers hope. Meanwhile, the Tauros Programme to bring back aurochs, which began in 2008, eschews cloning for old-fashioned selective breeding guided by modern DNA analysis.
Over at Modern Farmer, Kristan Lawson has written a fascinating overview of the Tauros Programme (as well as its rival, founded by a disgruntled former Tauros scientist). The project began by examining auroch DNA sequenced from old bones found in Britain. Scientists then went looking for primitive breeds of cattle with segments of auroch DNA still intact. Today, they have second- and third-generation herds stashed all over Europe; give it a few more generations of selective breeding, and the researchers think an auroch, or auroch-like creature would emerge.
The most damning argument against de-extinction for creatures like the wooly mammoth is ecological. Where would an animal adapted to the ice age live today? But for aurochs, this is the argument for their resurrection. Bringing back the auroch is part of rewilding, the process of restoring habitats that existed before we came along with our farms and our cities. And to restore those long-gone habitats, you need the long-gone animals that lived in them. [Modern Farmer]
Picture: Aurochs in a cave painting in Lascaux, France. Prof saxx/Creative Commons