Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology

Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct

Great Asian cattle


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.

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

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