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Great Asian cattle

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

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When unable to produce anything new, I resort to the extensive Tet Zoo archives. Here’s an article from ver 2, first published in April 2009…

Cattle are another of those groups of animals that are really pretty incredible once you take the time to look at, and think about, them. The size, power and awesome appearance of many wild cattle never fails to amaze me. Markus Bühler (of Bestiarium) has been good enough to share these photos he took of Banteng Bos javanicus and Gaur B. gaurus at Berlin Zoo.

These [above] are Banteng, also known as Tsaine or Tembadau, a wild cattle of southeast Asia, Borneo and Java. The sexual dimorphism is obvious, as is the distinctive white rump patch and ‘stockings’. Three subspecies are recognised, of which the mainland form (B. j. birmanicus) is critically endangered. Banteng are similarly proportioned to domestic cattle B. taurus* and are not much bigger: maximum shoulder height might be 1.9 m, and maximum weight is 900 kg. A large male’s horns can spread as much as 75 cm (though this would be exceptional nowadays), and a distinctive bald, horny patch is present between the horns. Like some other wild cattle, they are cathemeral (active at any hour) and even nocturnal in some places (usually due to human persecution, however).

Banteng have been domesticated on Bali. In contrast to B. j. birmanicus, this domestic form (known as the Bali cattle) is very abundant, with a population exceeding 1.5 million. From a domestication centre on Bali, domestic banteng were taken to Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Sulawesi, Timor and elsewhere in the region. In 1849 they were introduced to the Cobourg Peninsula in Australia, and a population of about 1000 is now feral there (surprisingly, perhaps, people forgot about them until their rediscovery in the 1960s). Banteng hybridise with domestic cattle and gaur when the opportunity arises.

* Which names we’re supposed to use for domesticates is a bit complicated. Bos taurus predates B. primigenius (in nomenclatural terms), but in 2003 the ICZN passed a ruling whereby the ‘wild’ names have priority (see Gentry et al. 2004). This doesn’t apply if you regard the domesticate as a separate species.

This [above and below] is the ultimate in Asian wild cattle: the Gaur, also sometimes called the Seladang or Indian bison. These [above] are (I think) females, rather than bulls, but a bull is shown below. It can reach a shoulder height of 2.2 m, a head and body length of 3.3 m, and weigh a ton (Nowak 1999). Adult males have a large shoulder hump, a prominent dorsal ridge, and dewlaps on the neck and chest. Its horns can span 1 m. Again, it has been domesticated, but apparently only through hybridisation: the domestic form is called the Gayal, Mithan or Mithun. This was first thought to be a distinct species, and named B. frontalis, but it is almost certainly a hybrid between gaur and domestic cattle. Some authors claim, however, that wild gayal exist and hence evidence a wild ancestry for this form (Jennison, in Whitlock 1977). These are almost certainly feral, however, as has been established for various populations in India and elsewhere. Within Bovini, gaur and banteng are usually found to be sister-taxa, and to form a clade that is outside a domestic cattle + yak + bison clade (Price et al. 2005). However, some studies find gaur to be closer to yak and domestic cattle than to banteng (Buntjer et al. 2002).

A second animal is standing behind the bull.

Cattle are incredibly resistant to cold, and little known is that this is, in part, due to the incredible amount of heat generated by their rumen contents: this ferments at 40 degrees C, and this heat radiates through the rest of the tissues, forming a sort of central heating system (Hall 1984). As a result, domestic cattle don’t need to shiver or employ other thermoregulatory tricks even in temperatures approaching -20 degrees C. I wonder how widespread this system is among ruminating mammals? And what about other herbivores: do they also gain a thermoregulatory benefit from digestion? Some cattle – notably bison and yak – are cold-climate specialists, and thick woolly coats and stocky proportions help them conserve heat. In these cold-climate forms, the secondary sexual characteristics – like beards and hair fringes on the head, body and limbs – are elaborations of the coat. In contrast, tropical forms – like gaur and banteng – are decorated with fleshy dewlaps, tall dorsal ridges and other structures that radiate heat.

Incidentally, both gaur and banteng have been genetically cloned. In the case of the gaur, the attempt was not fully successful as the baby died of complications within its first 48 hours.

Cattle and other bovids have been covered a fair bit at Tet Zoo. See…

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

Refs – -

Buntjer, J. B., Otsen, M., Nijman, I. J., Kuiper, M. T. R. & Lenstra, J. A. 2002. Phylogeny of bovine species based on AFLP fingerprinting. Heredity 88, 46-51.

Gentry, A., Clutton-Brock, J. & Groves, C. P. 2004. The naming of wild animal species and their domestic derivatives. Journal of Archaeological Science 31, 645–651.

Hall, S. J. G. Wild cattle and spiral-horned antelopes. In Macdonald, D. (ed) Hoofed Mammals. Torstar Books (New York), pp. 104-108.

Nowak, R. M. 1999. Walker’s Mammals of the World, Sixth Edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.

Price, S. A., Bininda-Emonds, O. R. P. & Gittleman, J. L. 2005. A complete phylogeny of the whales, dolphins and even-toed hoofed mammals (Cetartiodactyla). Biological Reviews 80, 445-473.

Whitlock, R. 1977. Bulls Through the Ages. Lutterworth Press, Guildford.

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 He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at! 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. farandfew 10:19 am 10/15/2012

    These [above] are (I think) females, rather than bulls,

    Really? The one on the right in particular looks like a male.
    This is a male (obviously) and isn’t any more ‘built’, nor significantly blacker than those two.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Max Blake 10:25 am 10/15/2012

    Sadly, no news in the last three years about the almost certainly extinct Kouprey, _Bos sauveli_. Not even a new genomics paper to follow up from Ropiquet et al. 2008.

    Ropiquet et al. (2008) Chromosome evolution in the subtribe Bovina (Mammalia, Bovidae): The karyotype of the Cambodian banteng (Bos javanicus birmanicus) duggests that Robertsonian translocations are related to interspecific hybridization. _Chromosome Research_ 16 1107–1118

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  3. 3. naishd 4:09 am 10/16/2012

    Yeah, I haven’t heard any news on the status of the Kouprey since the 2008 work, either. Has anyone else? Prior to that, there was of course the flurry of work published in 2006 and 2007…

    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.

    Hedges, S., Groves, C. P., Duckworth, J. W., Meijaard, E., Timmins, R. J. & Burton, J. A. 2007. Was the kouprey a feral hybrid? A response to Galbreath et al. (2006). Journal of Zoology 271, 242-245.


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  4. 4. naishd 4:13 am 10/16/2012

    Oh, and – - farandfew (comment 1), you might be right. I assumed that one bull would be kept with several cows, but I could be very wrong. The answer could be found in one of the online zoo databases.


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  5. 5. Dartian 4:36 am 10/16/2012

    there was of course the flurry of work published in 2006 and 2007

    For the record and in the interest of completeness, in 2007 there was also this publication:

    Hassanin, A. & 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
  6. 6. farandfew 5:40 am 10/16/2012

    one of the online zoo databases.

    You have to be part of the ‘zoo community’ to get access to those right – I mean to ISIS/ZIMS which is all I know about. Not asking because I’m obsessed with your gaur-sexing prowess, but I’d really like to have a look at such a database.
    I believe some more recent Kouprey surveys have been done, including a review of camera trap records of wild cattle from within the range but not sure where and if results are out. I should find out and will let you know if I do. Definitely no good news, though.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Bret Newton 10:29 am 10/16/2012

    I’ve spent the last 6 months or so working on a novel about the search for the Kouprey, and I have not come across any news on the subject. I’ve come to the conclusion that the whole species is cursed.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Max Blake 11:48 am 10/16/2012

    “You have to be part of the ‘zoo community’ to get access to those right – I mean to ISIS/ZIMS which is all I know about.”

    ISIS used to be free to access, but they have removed the public part of the database whilst they move fully over to ZIMS. The old public section let you browse through the taxa in zoos worldwide, and gave you how many of each animal, and information on sexes and births, were present in each zoo/aquarium. I used to use it a lot, but from what I know about ZIMS, it will be a huge change for captive animal management, allowing each animal to have it’s full history traced from birth to death, and everything in-between.

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  9. 9. sfcolby 8:35 pm 10/16/2012

    Speaking as farmer who raises both dairy cows and meat goats, it is well known within my industries that ruminants are “self-heating!” It’s now widely understood in my fields that long as an adult ruminant gets enough roughage in their diet, they only really need a windbreak and a dry spot to lay down to stay warm in (temperate climate) winters. (Unweaned offspring still suffer from the cold like non-ruminating animals, and are much more likely to show shivering, hunching up, etc. to retain heat). The adults do grow longer/shaggier coats to help retain heat in cold weather, and I’ve observed the adult goats snuggle up to relatives or friendly peers most winter nights.
    FYI, the greater awareness of ruminant’s digestive heat has led to the radical re-design of cow barns in the last ~50 years from low, thick-walled, tightly enclosed structures to high-ceiling barns that have more curtain-covered screen than wall! Just a bit of applied biology trivia for you.

    I love all facets of animal biology, but I was tickled to see this new/old article on some of my beloved bovidae here today =)

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  10. 10. David Marjanović 11:21 pm 10/16/2012

    at Berlin Zoo

    The East Zoo (Tierpark) or the West Zoo (Zoologischer Garten)? (…And both are different from Tiergarten.)

    Link to this
  11. 11. BrianL 8:36 am 10/20/2012

    A few questions:

    Given how easily cattle (as in *Bos* and *Bison*) seem to hybridise, might hybridisation in the past be responsible for some of the uncertainties regarding their true phylogeny?

    Also, I suppose that we can imagine all these species to have met and mixed in the periphery of their ranges when they were all far more numerous and widely distributed? In this case, perhaps, there were wide hybrid zones between, say, aurochs/gaur, gaur/kouprey and so on? Or is this unrealistic because of ecological differences between these species?

    According to Wikipedia, *Bubalus* and *Syncerus* are believed to have been the first Bovini to have diverged, but *Pseudoryx* isn’t mentioned. Is there any consensus as to where it goes among Bovini?
    Also, should I imagine water buffalo to be giant anoas or anoas to be dwarf water buffaloes, from a phylogenetic standpoint? If the first, that might suggest a *Pseudoryx*/*Bubalus* sister group relationship.

    Where does *Syncerus* go anyway? Is it sister to *Bubalus*(/*Pseudoryx*)?

    Link to this

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