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Frankly, cattle are awesome

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I’ve written about cattle – living and fossil – at least a few times on Tet Zoo (see links below). What a fascinating and awesome assemblage of mammalian herbivores. There are the bison and the members of the domestic cattle lineage, the African buffalo Syncerus caffer and its fossil, long-horned relatives, the Asian water buffalo Bubalus and their dwarf relatives the anoa, those charismatic, sometimes gigantic Asian species like the Gaur Bos gaurus, Banteng B. javanicus, Yak B. grunniens and Kouprey B. sauveli, and the antelope-faced, long-horned fossil form Pelorovis. As usual, there are a great many fascinating fossil kinds, virtually none of which have ever been discussed outside of the technical literature. They include the Javanese Epileptobos, Afro-Asian Hemibos, European Parabos and Yakopsis, African Brabovus and all those obscure Asian taxa, like Adjiderebos, Platybos, Bucapra, Probison, Protobison and Ioribos.

I recently got hold of this diagram [below], produced by Erich Thenius in 1969 for his pamphlet ‘Phylogenie der Mammalia’. It doesn’t show anything revelatory, but it’s just something you don’t see all that often – a nicely illustrated, diagrammatic representation of cattle phylogeny. It’s not a cladogram but a looser, less rigorous dendrogram, and of course some of the affinities illustrated here are not necessarily supported any more. Whatever, I think it looks nice. The photos used above show some impressive and/or beautiful living cattle: an incredibly flamboyant Amerison bison Bison bison photographed by Markus Bühler in Berlin, a Lowland anoa Bubalus depressicornis I photographed at Paignton Zoo recently, and a group of European bison or Wisent Bi. bonasus I got to see while in Romania this year.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on cattle, see…

And for more on other bovids and other artiodactyls, see…

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. andrewwright73 11:47 am 09/8/2011

    Aren’t Kouprey now thought to be a feral Banteng/Gaur hybrid?

    BTW If you like SE Asian wildlife from wild cattle to Hornbills, this is your man:

    http://brucekekule.com/

    Does an amazing 2-3 page spread in the Bangkok Post every couple of weeks which I avidly collect. Well worth a look!

    Link to this
  2. 2. naishd 11:56 am 09/8/2011

    The ‘Kouprey is a feral hybrid’ hypothesis is controversial, and some specialists have presented evidence to the contrary. See…

    Galbreath, G. J., Mordacq, J. C. & Weiler, F. H. 2006. Genetically solving a zoological mystery: was the kouprey (Bos sauveli) a feral hybrid? Journal of Zoology 270, 561-564.

    - ., Mordacq, J. C. & Weiler, F. H. 2007. An evolutionary conundrum involving kouprey and banteng: a response from Galbreath, Mordacq and Weiler. Journal of Zoology 271, 253-254.

    Grigson, C. 2007. Compex cattle: some anatomical observations on the possible affinities of the kouprey: a response to Galbreath et al. (2006). Journal of Zoology 271, 239-241.

    Hassanin, A. & Ropiquet, A. 2007. What is the taxonomic status of the Cambodian banteng and does it have close genetic links with the kouprey? Journal of Zoology 271, 246-252.

    - . & Ropiquet, A. 2007. Resolving a zoological mystery: the kouprey is a real species. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 274, 2849–2855.

    Link to this
  3. 3. BrianL 12:50 pm 09/8/2011

    That’s indeed a beautiful dendrogram!

    I wonder, would you feel like elaborating some more about those “great many fascinating fossil kinds”? It’s so tantalising and ironic for us readers when you point out that the fossil genera you mentioned never get discussed and then you don’t mention details about them yourself!
    Undoubtedly, you had your reasons though.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Allen Hazen 7:06 pm 09/8/2011

    The article in “Science” last week (?? 1 September 2011 ??) about the discovery of an ancestral Woolly Rhinoceros (Coelodonta) from the Pliocene of Tibet closed with the speculation that the Yak-Bison lineage might have had a similar history: evolved, and became cold-adapted, in Tibet before the Pleistocene Ice Ages, then spread when the lowlands got cold.

    How far east does (did) the range of the Wisent extend? I have the mental picture that Holocene Bison lived on both sides of Siberia, but with a Siberia-wide gap in the middle– is this right?

    Link to this
  5. 5. Hai~Ren 10:25 pm 09/8/2011

    I’m also interested in finding out more about the various extinct bovines, especially since I’m trying to learn if any of these can be counted among the end-Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions.

    I once read that yaks were found in Beringia, although I’m not sure what evidence is there; is it possible that bovine fossils may be confused with those of musk oxen?

    As an aside, I was in Sichuan recently, and besides a number of encounters with domestic yak (I even went home with packets of dried yak jerky), I also saw a golden takin at the Chongqing Zoo.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Ranjit Suresh 3:32 am 09/9/2011

    The notion that woolly rhino’s evolved in Tibet before expanding during the last ice age throughout Eurasia is interesting. But it raises the question why, if climate change was the motive force in their extinction, they wouldn’t have survived in refugia like their ancestral homeland. But, then I don’t believe climate change is a sufficient explanation.

    More on topic, it’s amazing to me how many domestication’s there were of cattle. There’s the domestication of taurine cattle, zebus, banteng, water buffalo, gaur, and yak. What others were there?

    Link to this
  7. 7. Dartian 4:18 am 09/9/2011

    Darren: “it’s just something you don’t see all that often – a nicely illustrated, diagrammatic representation of cattle phylogeny

    Thenius did plenty of diagrams of that kind, of many different mammal groups. They are products of their time, no doubt, but they are certainly still nice to look at, even if you don’t read German (in which language most of Thenius’ papers were published).

    Brian: “It’s so tantalising and ironic for us readers when you point out that the fossil genera you mentioned never get discussed and then you don’t mention details about them yourself!

    I agree. Darren, where is that 400-word article on Hemibos that we, your readers, never knew we wanted (until now)?!? ;)

    Ranjit: “There’s the domestication of taurine cattle, zebus, banteng, water buffalo, gaur, and yak. What others were there?

    Eland, if you want to count it as ‘cattle’ (which, phylogenetically speaking, you kinda could).

    Link to this
  8. 8. naishd 6:13 am 09/9/2011

    Where is the 400-word article on Hemibos? No time for anything right now – preparing for the SVPCA meeting next week and snowed under with work too…

    Darren

    Link to this
  9. 9. David Marjanović 6:42 am 09/9/2011

    It’s not a cladogram but a dendrogram

    “Dendrogram” is just the cover term for all tree-shaped diagrams; all cladograms are diagrams. I’d say it’s an illustration of a scenario-based phylogenetic hypothesis. (Thenius made lots of those. He wasn’t very deep in phylopessimism.)

    There’s the domestication of taurine cattle

    IIRC, two or three separate ones in Eurasia and Africa.

    Link to this
  10. 10. farandfew 8:53 am 09/9/2011

    “Eland, if you want to count it as ‘cattle’ (which, phylogenetically speaking, you kinda could).”

    Huh?

    Link to this
  11. 11. Dartian 10:51 am 09/9/2011

    Farandfew: Eland and other tragelaphine antelopes belong to the same Bovinae clade as do cattle (as well as the Indian nilgai & four-horned antelopes, and the Vietnamese saola); they are not particularly closely related to alcelaphines, reduncines, or other such antelopes. From a phylogenetic point of view, it would make more sense to call the eland a kind of ‘buffalo’ rather than a kind of ‘antelope’.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Zoovolunteer 1:38 pm 09/9/2011

    One interesting result I learned of in a lecture a while ago is that the Wisent appears to derive from an ancient hybridization of Bison with Aurochs. Apparently the mitochondrial lineage aligns with cattle, while the nuclear DNA is almost entirely Bison. One wonders how many other species may derive from similar events. The domestic cattle x Bison hybrid is fully fertile even today – a lot of the farmed Bison in the US are actually Bison x cattle hybrids

    Link to this
  13. 13. Therizinosaurus 7:59 pm 09/9/2011

    Seeing that phylogram using horns to represent taxa makes me wonder. Was/Is bovid morphology-based phylogeny almost entirely based on cranial and in particular horn characters, the way ceratopsid and hadrosaur phylogenies have been until very recently? And if so, have molecular phylogenies supported the same relationships?

    Link to this
  14. 14. Heteromeles 8:14 pm 09/10/2011

    @ZooVolunteer: As I understand it, there’s a concern that some of the extant bison populations (Catalina Island, for example, not that it shows) are thought to have some cattle genes, which leads to some awkward conservation issues.

    Is there any serious proposal to merge Bison with Bos? They are interfertile, after all…

    Link to this
  15. 15. David Marjanović 3:33 pm 09/11/2011

    One interesting result I learned of in a lecture a while ago is that the Wisent appears to derive from an ancient hybridization of Bison with Aurochs. Apparently the mitochondrial lineage aligns with cattle, while the nuclear DNA is almost entirely Bison. One wonders how many other species may derive from similar events. The domestic cattle x Bison hybrid is fully fertile even today – a lot of the farmed Bison in the US are actually Bison x cattle hybrids

    Wow. I had no idea.

    BTW, the software here regularly turns the first word or tag into a hyperlink to nowhere, and when I load the main page, Internet Explorer asks me several times in a row whether to stop a script that could slow the entire computer down or something. If I don’t say “no”, it reappears again and again while the browser freezes.

    Link to this
  16. 16. naishd 4:20 pm 09/11/2011

    I have heard of the ‘wisent = aurochs hybrid’ thing before, but I think it’s due to confusion – most authors acknowledge that hybridisation between American and European bison is a problem in the management of captive bison populations, and that domestic cattle mtDNA and haplotypes are present in some bison populations, but European bison have generally been shown in genetic studies to be good, honest bison. And while there’s a history of creating bison x domestic cattle hybrids (involving European bison as well as American ones*), the hybrids are actually normally sterile: look, for example, at Douglas et al. (2011). Historically, there’s been a lot of confusion between Wisent and Aurochs, since the latter name was often wrongly applied to the Wisent after the Aurochs’s extinction in the 1600s.

    * Leopold Walicki developed a strain of European bison x domestic cattle hybrids in Poland during the 1840s. They’re now termed zubrons (plenty of images online).

    As for the script problem (comment 15), you’re not the first person to mention it. I don’t know what to do about it and can only report it.

    Darren

    Link to this
  17. 17. Jerzy New 5:01 pm 09/11/2011

    Zubron, or fertile Wisent x Cattle hybrid was tried in 19. cent and again in mid 20. cent. in Poland. First generation male hybrid is infertile, cows breed with both species.

    It turned unprofitable commercially. Was resistant to cold and disease and able to graze low quality meadows, but also agressive and had too big food demands. There are apparently few hybrids still alive in captivity in Poland.

    Link to this
  18. 18. Dartian 3:00 am 09/12/2011

    Heteromeles: “Is there any serious proposal to merge Bison with Bos?

    There have been a few such proposals recent-ish-ly. See, for example:

    Groves, C.P. 1981. Systematic relationships in the Bovini (Artiodactyla, Bovidae). Zeitschrift für Zoologische Systematik und Evolutionsforschung 19, 264-278.

    Most current workers seem happy to keep Bison as separate from Bos, though.

    David: “Wow. I had no idea.

    The reference, if you want to look this up, is:

    Verkaar, E.L.C., Nijman, I.J., Beeke, M., Hanekamp, E. & Lenstra, J.A. 2004. Maternal and paternal lineages in cross-breeding bovine species. Has wisent a hybrid origin? Molecular Biology and Evolution 21, 1165-1170.

    Darren: “As for the script problem (comment 15), you’re not the first person to mention it.

    I have that problem too; it started last week. (And even before that, it seemed to me that Tet Zoo ver 3 loads much slower than the SciBlogs site did.)

    Link to this
  19. 19. naishd 3:57 am 09/12/2011

    Verkaar et al. (2004) (‘Has wisent a hybrid origin?’) – available free here – doesn’t actually conclude that European bison did originate via hybridisation. Rather, the authors suggest this as a possibility. I don’t think that more recent studies on bison and other cattle have supported this possibility – other genetic studies have found European and American bison to group together (e.g., Douglas et al. 2011).

    And, yes, Tet Zoo ver 3 loads slowly for me too.

    Going away for a while now, so will be silent…

    Darren

    Link to this
  20. 20. David Marjanović 4:54 am 09/12/2011

    BTW, the software here regularly turns the first word or tag into a hyperlink to nowhere, and when I load the main page, Internet Explorer asks me several times in a row whether to stop a script that could slow the entire computer down or something. If I don’t say “no”, it reappears again and again while the browser freezes.

    More precisely, while loading (I think) the stumbleupon feature, the browser freezes, after half a minute it asks me whether to stop the script, I click “no”, the browser freezes for another half minute, it asks me again, I say “no” again, and it freezes for another half minute. Then it loads the other social network stuff (facebook etc.), and then it becomes usable. Please do report it.

    While I am at it, could you suggest a “recent comments” feature? That would make it much easier to see which threads have comments that I haven’t seen yet. ScienceBlogs and Freethoughtblogs both have that…

    Link to this
  21. 21. Dartian 6:30 am 09/12/2011

    Heteromeles, still regarding your question about merging Bison and Bos; above, Darren linked to a paper by Douglas et al., (2011). These authors actually say that their data “do not support the genus designation of Bison” and that “the Bison and Bos genera should be reunited.” (p. 173).

    Link to this
  22. 22. Heteromeles 11:21 am 09/12/2011

    Thanks Dartian and Darren.

    As for the wisent being a hybrid, I’d suggest it’s possible that the animals sampled had a cow (or an aurochs) somewhere in their ancestry.

    On Catalina (where I worked for a bit), the bison herd was imported for a movie shoot and maintained as a tourist attraction. At that time and for a couple decades afterwards, the island was a working cattle ranch. The bison were not deliberately bred to the cattle, but the bison are now a bit smaller on average than animals in the Dakotas. There has been some concern of genetic contamination of the herd, but I’m not sure if anyone has quantified it.

    It’s possible the same thing happened in Europe with the wisent.

    Link to this
  23. 23. Stevo Darkly 4:09 pm 09/12/2011

    Similar to the problem David Marjanović had, FYI when I got to the main page of the Tet Zoo blog my browser froze while I got a message along the lines of “a script is causing Internet Explorer to run slowly; do you want to stop running this script? Yes/No.” When I click on “Yes” it still freezes; I presume the script restarts as soon as it is stopped. I had a devil of a time getting past the front page to here.

    PS: I am aware that these days all the cool kids use Firefox or something, but I have to use Internet Explorer when using this machine; it’s not mine.

    Link to this
  24. 24. David Marjanović 4:21 am 09/13/2011

    “a script is causing Internet Explorer to run slowly; do you want to stop running this script? Yes/No.”

    Yep, that’s it. Browser freezes, message appears, click “no”, browser freezes again, message appears again, click “no” again, browser freezes again and then releases. Looks like two faulty scripts on the main page.

    ScienceBlogs looks better and better in hindsight.

    Link to this
  25. 25. Stevo Darkly 7:19 pm 09/13/2011

    David, I think you want to click “yes” (that is, “stop running this trouble-making script”) rather than “no” — except there seems to be no practical difference. I’ve tried both.

    I got here today by clicking on the link to this article ASAP before the page fully loaded. Did I evade the troublesome script? Is it still running today? Gonna go find out. If I don’t post again soon, then it is.

    Link to this
  26. 26. Stevo Darkly 7:30 pm 09/13/2011

    Yep, the bloody script is still running on the main landing page of Tet Zoo. Froze my browser; had to use my task manager to force the browser to close.

    Whatever SciAm is doing with that script, it’s making it significantly more difficult to access TetZoo and it can’t help but discourage visitors. Sad Ailuropoda. :(

    Link to this
  27. 27. David Marjanović 4:23 am 09/14/2011

    David, I think you want to click “yes” (that is, “stop running this trouble-making script”) rather than “no” —

    That’s what I did the first few times. When I do, it just keeps asking me again and again. When I say “no”, it only asks twice.

    Link to this

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