September 30, 2020

The mistake of the Nazi giant cows



When we think about bringing extinct species back, images of Jurassic Park come to our mind, or perhaps, of that mammoth baby we found frozen in Russia. However, the reality is somewhat different. The concept is called “dextinction” and does not always focus on these popular animals. Few people will have heard of the bucardo, a kind of goat that became extinct at the end of the last century. However, he has been the protagonist of a story that borders science fiction, as scientists have managed to “resuscitate” the species briefly. Dextinction is almost a reality in our times, where we have advanced genetic engineering techniques, but the approach has not always been so fine. Almost a century ago we didn’t even know what DNA was, and yet Germany embarked on adventure.

The “grandfather” of all bulls

The objective was to desextinguish a giant bull that populated our continent until the 17th century. We talked about an animal that was around a ton and a half in weight and its back rose to a meter and eighty centimeters from the ground. With black skin and horns like 74 cm spikes, the uro (Bos primigenius primigenius) was possibly the common ancestor of all European cattle. And for us to get an idea, a bull fighting does not usually reach 500 kilos, only a third of what is estimated to weigh the uro.

It was the twenties and the last specimen had died almost 300 years earlier in the Polish forest of Jaktorów. But why desextinguilo? What did they gain by bringing back an extinct giant bull? On the one hand, a brushcutter capable of eliminating the weeds of the mountains, secondly, a symbol of Aryan power, recreating what they considered to have been ancient and heavenly Germany.

While the second motive was quite absurd, the first had its point. Centuries ago, Europe is not what it was in terms of its fauna. Large mammals reproduce slowly and recover worse from hunting. As the population of humans increased, that of its largest prey was decreasing, pushing many species of megafauna into extinction that apparently served the purpose of clearing the bush of weeds. In the case of uro, extinction was a sum of several human actions. On the one hand, direct hunting, on the other the felling of their forests and, finally, because they were at a disadvantage against their domesticated descendants: our cattle.

The Heck brothers

Between 1920 and 1930, one of the rarest projects in history began. The Germans wanted to recover an extinct species of which they hardly knew anything and all this without being able to use genetic engineering. The plan was doomed to fail, but what did they have in mind? The brains of the operation were the brothers Heck, Heinz and Lutz, two zoologists related to the Nazi movement that was emerging in their land. The idea was simple: we all inherited traits from our ancestors (our grandfather’s chin, our great grandmother’s eyes, etc.) so what if we try to recompose our ancestor by “putting together” the pieces of his descendants that remind us of him .

They were not talking about a Frankenstein monster made with remnants, but about selectively crossing the breeds of cows that showed older characteristics, more related to the uro. The funny thing is that the two brothers decided to work separately. Each developed a different line of research, crossing different races in search of the same goal. They mixed the largest specimens, the races with longer horns and better muscles, it is estimated that it took just over 10 years to give birth to Glachl, the first bovine of Heck. The news had good acceptance, at least until the calf grew and disappointed the most informed zoologists, who barely recognized in him the legendary ancestor that the Heck brothers wanted to emulate.

The bull was relatively small and not very big, it did not respond to everything we knew about the uro and its excessive skeletons. In turn, the supposed uros of each brother were quite different, they were something like free interpretations of the same concept. So many years invested in a failure were not acceptable, so they returned to work, but this time to get out of line.

Halo effect

The crosses continued, each time with larger specimens, until they were satisfied. The result was still much smaller than a royal uro, reaching 900 kilos and 140 centimeters high in cross (up to the shoulder). However, one characteristic that had become extreme: aggressiveness. Heck’s cattle had a very strong temper and was difficult to control. Had they managed to replicate the bravery of their predecessor? Were the uros like this before being tamed by man? Possibly: no and no.

It is very likely that scientists were influenced by a myth that had distorted reality. Normally, we tend to associate certain characteristics with each other in what is known as the “halo effect”. If someone is attractive we assume that he must be a good person, intelligent and a long list of nonsense. Similarly, it seems intuitive to think that a big and powerful bull will be brave. However, not all testimonies agree and the most credible speak of uro as a fairly peaceful animal, which fits with what we know of other large bovids, such as bison or water buffalo.

However, there is an even bigger problem, because, even if it looks like the outside, how can we know that what we have done is not to cover a normal bull with an uro outer costume? We could have shaped their appearance but without their physiology and internal anatomy having anything to do. Nowadays we have answers, and thanks to genetic sequencing methods we have been able to analyze the DNA of Heck’s cattle to find that, surprisingly, they are not only far from the uro that the brothers wanted to get, but that they are even farther away than when they started . In fact, some of the races they used for the experiment were genetically closer to the uro than the resulting calves.

A fourth chance

The same problem is with Taurus cattle, a third attempt made by mixing Heck’s cattle with Ankole-Watusi, the world’s largest horned breed. Thanks to this the descendants grew, reaching 165 centimeters in height in cross and the 1400 kilos. However, we live in an era where crossing races blindly makes no sense. Since we have geneticists, why not consult them?

That is the premise of the TaurOs project, where they are trying to analyze the situation genetically, knowing what they have and what they want the offspring to look like. The result is the Taurus cattle (not to be confused with the Taurus cattle, with “u”)

In any case, while these projects continue trying to rebuild old brushcutters, there is another simpler front with which to fight the shortage of megafauna: conservation. For a long time it was thought that the uro and the European bison (Bison bonasus) were the same species and, although Pliny himself knew that it was not, the error remained until well into the twentieth century. Luckily, there are still some European bison alive and, although few, they are increasingly thanks to the restocking efforts. These animals have a cross height that can reach two meters and a weight of 900 kilos, being an almost perfect substitute for the hole that the uro has left in the ecosystems.

Investigating de-extinction is a great idea and, although putting it into practice has bioethical implications that we should not overlook, it is a commitment to our future, in order to “remedy” some of the mistakes we have made and which, unfortunately, we are about to commit again. However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that there are much simpler paths

DON’T KEEP IT UP:

  • The domestication of the uro did not happen in a single place, it has happened several times and in different parts of the world, although the oldest remains of which we have proof date back 8500 years in the past.
  • It is very likely that the uro bravery was a myth.
  • There is no consensus on the benefits of reintroducing a species that has been missing for 300 years. On the one hand, it is difficult to think that ecosystems have completely adapted to their loss but, on the other hand, it is also naive to think that the environment has not changed anything in the last three centuries.

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