Aurochs, an extinct species of large wild cattle that once inhabited vast regions of Europe, Asia and North Africa, may soon rise again.
The species, one of several commonly found in Paleolithic European and Mesopotamian cave paintings, weighed as much as 3,300 pounds and featured horns with lengths in excess of two feet. Their populations shrank in the Middle Ages due to overhunting and loss of habitat to farmland, with the last female aurochs recorded to have passed away in a forest in Poland in 1627.
Despite the animal's extinction, scientists are hopeful they can bring back a version of the aurochs based on genetic code preserved in domestic cattle. The project, spearheaded by the Dutch foundation Stichting Taurus, is part of a "rewilding" program to restore large tracts of European wilderness to their pre-human state.
"The aurochs was part of an ecosystem," Henri Kerkdijk, manager of the project, told Time magazine in 2010. "If you want to recreate the flora of the ecosystem, you also have to recreate the fauna."
Unlike other attempts to bring back extinct animals, this one does not involve genetic engineering in a lab. Instead, the researchers are utilizing crossbreeding and selective breeding (a process known as "back-breeding") to create a new population of animals that most closely resembles the aurochs. As a kind of benchmark, the effort is referencing a complete genome sequenced from the 6,700-year-old humerus bone of an aurochs discovered in an English cave in 2014.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Ronald Goderie, an ecologist who directs the Taurus Project, said that it will likely be another 10 years before the group is successful at creating a modern-day aurochs.
"What you see already in the second generation is that the coloration of the animal is very aurochs-like," he described. "The bulls are black and have an eel stripe [along the spine]. They’re already higher on the legs. What’s more complicated is the size and shape of the horns. I would say that in some cases, you can see an individual animal is 75 percent of where we need to get at."
The effort does have some precedent. Earlier this year, a group called the Quagga Project announced that after 30 years of selective breeding, they had achieved a living version of the extinct zebra-like quagga. "The project is now between four and five generations removed from where they began, and the resultant offspring are starting to look very much like quaggas," wrote MNN's Bryan Nelson.
If successful in the coming years, Stichting Taurus plans to work with the nonprofit Rewilding Europe to release herds of aurochs to graze on protected lands. By 2022, Rewilding Europe hopes to convert as much as 2.4 million acres spread across 10 regions back to a natural state. In an interview with Modern Farmer, Goderie added that this time around, his group intends for the aurochs to stay wild.
"Our aurochs will be only used to populate wild ecosystems in Europe,” he said. “There’s not very much sense in starting the domestication process all over again.”