Cave Paintings Come to Life
The timing of Goderie’s quest was auspicious. Researchers were sequencing mitochondrial DNA from aurochs remains (and would successfully sequence the first nuclear genome in 2015). Teaming up with Wageningen University molecular geneticist Richard Crooijmans, Goderie surveyed how different primitive cattle breeds were related to the aurochs in order to decide which animals to mix.
They started with six different types of cattle from three regions of Europe. “You have to start with many breeds because most of them are highly inbred,” explains Crooijmans. “Without variation, you can’t select.” And since the goal is to breed animals for their ability to thrive in the wild, selection of aurochs-like traits (or phenotypes) has been their initial focus.
They deduce those traits from cave paintings and ancient skeletons. Some, like menacing horns, have obvious advantages for animals living in the wild. Other characteristics, such as stripes down the back, are not obviously important but might be genetically related to traits that prove significant. And all of the characteristics must be considered in terms of their potential risk to humans. (That’s why Spanish fighting bulls aren’t on the menu.)
Even with Crooijmans’ expertise, the breeding process is excruciatingly slow. Each generation requires a couple of years before traits mature, and he can’t yet select characteristics just by looking at the genes. “Commercially interesting traits like milk yield have been very well studied, but primitive traits like horn shape have not,” he says. “What we want is to get a grip on those primitive phenotypes based on genome sequences. Then we can go much faster.”
To preserve open terrain in nature reserves, organizations such as Rewilding Europe often enlist domesticated herds. In 2008, cattle breeder Goderie was providing that service in the Netherlands — grazing parks with Scottish Highland cattle — when he began thinking about more suitable breeds. “In one of the nature areas near ours, there was the idea of starting with Heck cattle,” he recalls. Concerned about their aggressiveness, he resolved to start over, seeking an animal as well adapted to the land as aurochs were in their time. Borrowing the Greek word for “bull,” he dubbed his creature the tauros.