Auroch: Facts and Figures

Auroch: Facts and Figures

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Auroch (German for "original ox"); pronounced OR-ock


Plains of Eurasia and northern Africa

Historical Epoch:

Pleistocene-Modern (2 million-500 years ago)

Size and Weight:

About six feet high and one ton



Distinguishing Characteristics:

Large size; prominent horns; larger males than females

About the Auroch

Sometimes it seems that every contemporary animal had a plus-sized megafauna ancestor during the Pleistocene epoch. A good example is the Auroch, which was pretty much identical to modern oxen with the exception of its size: this "dino-cow" weighed about a ton, and one imagines that the males of the species were significantly more aggressive than modern bulls. (Technically, the Auroch is classified as Bos primigenius, placing it under the same genus umbrella as modern cattle, to which it's directly ancestral.)

The Auroch is one of the few prehistoric animals to be commemorated in ancient cave paintings, including a famous drawing from Lascaux in France dating to about 17,000 years ago. As you might expect, this mighty beast figured on the dinner menu of early humans, who played a large part in driving the Auroch into extinction (when they weren't domesticating it, thus creating the line that led to modern cows). However, small, dwindling populations of Aurochs survived well into modern times, the last known individual dying in 1627.

One little-known fact about the Auroch is that it actually comprised three separate subspecies. The most famous, Bos primigenius primigenius, was native to Eurasia, and is the animal depicted in the Lascaux cave paintings. The Indian Auroch, Bos primigenius namadicus, was domesticated a few thousand years ago into what are now known as Zebu cattle, and the North African Auroch (Bos primigenius africanus) is the most obscure of the three, likely descended from a population native to the Middle East.

One historical description of the Auroch was written by, of all people, Julius Caesar, in his History of the Gallic War: "These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, color, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied. These the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them. The young men harden themselves with this exercise and practice themselves in this sort of hunting, and those who have slain the greatest number of them, having produced the horns in public, to serve as evidence, receive great praise."

Back in the 1920s, a pair of German zoo directors hatched a scheme to resurrect the Auroch via the selective breeding of modern cattle (which share virtually the same genetic material as Bos primigenius, albeit with some important traits suppressed). The result was a breed of oversized oxen known as Heck cattle, which, if not technically Aurochs, at least provide a clue to what these ancient beasts must have looked like. Still, hopes for the resurrection of the Auroch persist, via a proposed process called de-extinction.


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