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Resurrecting the aurochs of Lascaux

12 Apr 2016
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An article by Jackson Landers on TheWashingtonPost - Scientists seek to resurrect the aurochs, the extinct beast that inspired cave paintings - reports on the Taurus Program, a partnership of ecologists, geneticists, historians and cattle breeders backed by Stichting Taurus, a Dutch nonprofit, seeking to re-create the aurochs by crossbreeding modern cattle in a process known as back breeding. 

'A tall, heavy beast with long, forward-curving horns faced down a smaller bull. Its head was held high as if in challenge. The smaller animal seemed to recoil in submission. Even the cave lion, the largest of predators, looked unlikely to challenge the dominant bull. Behind them a herd of giant deer ran from unseen danger.'

The paintings in Lascaux, France, created 17,000 years ago depicts fauna now extinct - the giant deer, the cave lion, and the bulls (a species called aurochs) - but the genes of the aurochs are still present in modern cattle, and scientists have been trying to bring them back to life.

Auroch
Auroch breeding site run by The Taurus Foundation in the Keent Nature Reserve, Netherlands. Image: Staffan Widstrand/Wild Wonders of Europe.

The Taurus Program, a partnership of ecologists, geneticists, historians and cattle breeders backed by Stichting Taurus, a Dutch nonprofit, is seeking to re-create the aurochs by crossbreeding modern cattle in a process known as back breeding. Laboratory-based genetic engineering is not required.

The program's scientists have identified breeds of cattle that share characteristics with their auroch ancestors: large stature, long legs, a slender and athletic build, horns curving forward, black coats in the males and reddish brown ones in females. The back breeding began in 2008 with seven varieties crossed.

The Taurus project was formed as part of the 'rewilding' conservation movement. Rewilding involves the restoration of large tracts as much as possible to their pre-human state. This often entails reintroducing key animals and plants that had disappeared.

 
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Aurochs once ranged across Europe and much of Asia. A combination of hunting and conversion of wild pastures to farmland reduced Europe's wild aurochs to a small remnant population in a Polish forest, where it was protected by royal order until the last one died in 1628. For more than a century, the Polish royal family tried to save the aurochs, giving villagers tax breaks for cutting hay and feeding them in the winter. But political instability, domestic cattle diseases and other threats finally rendered Europe's early attempt at wildlife conservation a failure.

The Taurus project is using modern genetic technology to establish a benchmark by which to measure success. A complete genome of an aurochs was sequenced in 2014 from a 6,700-year-old humerus bone found in an English cave.

Read more about the cave paintings of Lascaux:

http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/lascaux/index.php

For the full article in The Washington Post:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/scientists-seek-to-resurrect-the-auroch-the-extinct-beast-that-inspired-cave-paintings/2016/04/04/e1e3c38a-c5e9-11e5-a4aa-f25866ba0dc6_story.html

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