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Will the Long Extinct Auroch Return to Europe?

The ancient aurochs once dominated Eurasia. A massive herbivore with wide, reaching horns, this bovine is the ancestor of all modern-day cattle.

When this keystone species went extinct, the effects devastated the populations of many other animals. But today, scientists are working to bring the mighty aurochs back from the dead. 

Is it even possible to recreate an animal that died centuries ago, or is that strictly science fiction? We’re looking into what it takes to de-extinct an ancient creature, why you would want to, and what happens if you succeed. 

Let’s dig in!

Is the Extinct Aurochs Returning to Europe?

Scientists in Germany and the Netherlands have spent years attempting to back-breed aurochs back into existence. And with the use of selective breeding and gene sequencing, they’re getting close. These scientists may have brought this colossal creature back within ten years.

The aurochs’ fate brings attention to more significant issues. Many scientists believe that Earth is entering a period of mass extinction. The planet has lost nearly half its biodiversity in the last fifty years. But in areas where large grazing bovines have been put back into the wild, scientists have seen an explosion of biodiversity. 

Reintroducing species to an environment isn’t without consequences. Previous reintroductions, such as European bison and Iberian wolves, caused some locals to feel uneasy. Primarily, issues center around humanity’s willingness to coexist. 

Most scientists agree that the benefits outweigh the consequences. The resurgence of large species like the aurochs is thought to have an overwhelmingly positive impact on biological diversity. And the success of missions like The Taurros Programme and The Auerrind Project gives hope to a planet struggling with extinction. 

What Were Aurochs?

For over 250,000 years, aurochs roamed Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. It’s the ancestor of today’s most recognizable bovines. Dairy cows, Spanish fighting bulls, and Italian Chianina cattle are all in its lineage.

Once one of the largest European herbivores, the aurochs stood six feet tall and weighed more than 3,000 pounds. It had a thick, black coat, long slender legs, and massive horns that stretched 4.5 feet from tip to tip. 

Hunting and habitat loss led to the species’ decline. In 1627, the last known aurochs died in Poland. Her remains became a drinking horn, the prized possession of King Sigismund III. 

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Auroch  like cattle
Auroch were similar to the cattle and bulls we know today.

What Are Megafauna and What Happened to Them?

Megafauna is typically described as any large, terrestrial animal weighing over 1,000 pounds. Woolly mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, and giant ground sloths are all examples.

During the Pleistocene epoch (50,000 to 10,000 years ago), about 100 megafauna species went extinct. Scientists debate whether this was caused mainly by climate change or human overhunting. 

Drastic drops in their populations correlate with the arrival of modern humans. Interestingly, large animals in Africa and Asia, where they had been coexisting with humans for millennia, were less affected. 

But this period also marks the end of the last ice age. Particularly in Europe and Asia, temperatures and environments were changing rapidly. 

Modern megafauna are generally considered to be any animal weighing over 100 pounds. Though their numbers are dwindling, elephants, giraffes, and tigers still roam the plains. Domesticated cattle are some of the only large animals whose numbers remain high, but this directly results from human interference.

What is the Auerrind Project?

The Auerrind Project has been working toward the successful back-breeding of aurochs since 2013. If successful, they plan to reintroduce the species (or something genetically similar) in the next ten to twenty years. 

They currently have four breeding herds of near-auroch cattle. These herds reside in river-meadow lands with access to sand dune pine forests, much like they would have enjoyed in their heyday. 

While the auroch project is a cornerstone of their work, their main goal is to raise awareness of the importance of large grazing herbivores and their effect on biodiversity. 

Rewilding Europe is the nonprofit organization that oversees the Auerrind Project. This organization aims to successfully back-breed extinct species and reintroduce them to their native habitats. Thanks to their work, bison, elk, wolves, and lynx populations have all resurgent.

Auroch clone
Science is making advancements to bring back Auroch from extinction.

Where Can You Get Extinct Animal DNA?

The aurochs was the predecessor of all modern-day cattle species. This means that its DNA lives on in today’s bovines, which share up to 98% of their DNA with extinct ancestors.

Using selective breeding, scientists are breeding similar cattle for specific physical traits they share with aurochs. Over time, the result is an animal nearly indistinguishable from the ancient archetype. 

The Tauros Programme works with Rewilding Europe and the Taurus Project to bring this species back from extinction. They have played an integral role in population selection and back-breeding. 

How Hard Is It to Bring Back an Extinct Animal?

While back-breeding is a straightforward process, there’s one problem. DNA doesn’t lie. 

The resulting animal might have physical characteristics of the original species, but its genetic profile will still contain remnants of the many genera bred to create it. 

Another way to bring extinct animals back from the grave is “de-extinction.” This process uses cloning and animal engineering to re-create different species. But so far, it hasn’t been successful. 

While scientists have gotten close, they are still researching the nuances of gene selection. The animals developed this way seem to come out slightly “off.” They may have the right physical traits, but other crucial systems, like the sense of smell, don’t function properly. 

If the goal is to regenerate species for purposes of biodiversity, an animal that can’t survive in the wild won’t fit the bill.

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What is the Fate of the Aurochs?

Humans have certainly had a significant impact on animal populations around the world. While we’ve helped some spread across the globe, others are gone. Back-breeding programs of the ancient aurochs look promising. Sure, their genetic profile might be slightly different from their ancestors.

But if they fill the biological niche of a large, grazing herbivore that helps increase the diversity of its habitat, those differences seem pretty trivial. With any luck, you’ll be able to see real aurochs in the flesh. Just give it time.

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