Eco Solutions

The wild, extinct supercow returning to Europe

Story highlights

Europe's largest mammal the auroch is being re-created through selective breeding

Fourth generation herds in pilot projects around Europe

Keystone herbivore could restore failing ecosystems and save other species

CNN  — 

Our ancestors learned to respect the auroch, and immortalized them in pre-historic cave paintings.

The earliest cows were mighty beasts that stood almost as tall as elephants, with lean, powerful frames and fearsome horns that would make a hunter think twice.

For thousands of years the aurochs were the largest land mammals in Europe, until the rise of human civilization decimated their numbers, and the last of the species died in Poland in 1627 – one of the first recorded cases of extinction.

Conservationists now believe the loss of the keystone herbivore was tragic for biodiversity in Europe, arguing that the aurochs’ huge appetite for grazing provided a natural “gardening service” that maintained landscapes and created the conditions for other species to thrive.

The theory is now being put to the test, as a “near 100% substitute” of the beast is returned to the forests.

Cave painting in Lascaux, France dating back around 17,000 years which is believed to depict an auroch.

Speed breeding

Ecologist Ronald Goderie launched the Tauros programme in 2008, seeking to address failing ecosystems. The most powerful herbivore in European history seemed to offer a solution.

“We thought we needed a grazer that is fully self-sufficient in case of big predators…and could do the job of grazing big wild areas,” says Goderie. “We reasoned that this animal would have to resemble an auroch.”

Rather than attempt the type of gene editing or high-tech de-extinction approaches being employed for species from woolly mammoths to passenger pigeons, Goderie chose a method known as back-breeding to create a substitute bovine he named “Tauros.”

Auroch genes remain present in various breeds of cattle around the continent, and the team identified descendants in Spain, Portugal, Italy and the Balkans. Geneticists advised breeding certain species together to produce offspring closer to the qualities of an auroch, and then breed the offspring.

Maronesa cow, a close descendent of the auroch.

The animals get closer with each generation, and the team have the advantage of being able to test the offspring’s DNA against the complete genome of an auroch, which was successfully sequenced at University College Dublin.

“You could see from the first generation that apart from the horn size, there was enough wild in the breed to produce animals far closer to the auroch than we would have expected,” says Goderie.

The ecologist had predicted that seven generations would be necessary for the desired outcome, which might be achieved by 2025.

The program is now in its fourth generation, and pilot schemes across Europe are offering encouragement.