The aurochs, a giant wild ox, dominated the Eurasian landscape before humans settled the region. About ten thousand years ago, people began domesticating this formidable bovine—at six-and-a-half feet at the shoulders, it stood head and horns above its diminutive domestic descendants—and hunting out its wild ancestors. The last aurochs died in a Jaktorów Forest in Poland in 1627.
Just as early Europeans carefully selected the best breeds to live among people, researchers have set their goals in a new direction by using modern DNA analysis to select domestic cattle with the genotypes and traits that closely resemble their ancestors. (The first complete sequence of the aurochs’ mitochondrial DNA, isolated from a bone sample, was published earlier this year.) By testing and crossbreeding modern-day cattle, scientists at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and their colleagues across Europe hope to come up with something that resembles the aurochs in physical form and genetic makeup.
This selective breeding would be one step, according to Henri Kerkdijk, manager of the project, to returning some of the native, giant, wild herbivores to the European continent. Such changes would not only restore a bovine that is now seen only in cave paintings, but it could also help native flora: aurochs once browsed on beech, a tree that has overtaken many European woodlands. Kerkdijk’s group has already introduced Exmoor ponies, the closest living relative to the wild horses that once grazed the lowlands, to nature reserves in the Netherlands.
Whether the aurochs can be recreated from living cattle is still an open question. Some of its DNA may have been lost as modern lineages split and old ones disappeared. But if the scientists succeed, the aurochs could be the first animal brought back from extinction and released into the wild.