A tall, heavy beast with long, forward-curving horns faced down a smaller bull. Its head was held high as if in challenge. The smaller animal seemed to recoil in submission. Even the cave lion, the largest of predators, looked unlikely to challenge the dominant bull. Behind them a herd of giant deer ran from unseen danger.
This scene was depicted in a painting on a cavern wall at Lascaux, France, 17,000 years ago. Megaloceros, the giant deer in the background, are extinct. The cave lion is extinct. The bulls - a species called aurochs (pronounced "aur-ox") - have disappeared. Their genes, however, are still present in modern cattle, and scientists have been trying to bring them back to life.
The Taurus Program, a partnership of ecologists, geneticists, historians and cattle breeders backed by Stichting Taurus, a Dutch nonprofit, is seeking to re-create the aurochs by crossbreeding modern cattle in a process known as back breeding. Laboratory-based genetic engineering is not required.
The program's scientists have identified breeds of cattle that share characteristics with their auroch ancestors: large stature, long legs, a slender and athletic build, horns curving forward, black coats in the males and reddish brown ones in females. The back breeding began in 2008 with seven varieties crossed.
"What's kind of surprised me is the low-hanging fruit that's quite easy to get at," said Ronald Goderie, an ecologist who directs the Taurus project and is co-author of the book "The Aurochs: Born to Be Wild."
"What you see already in the second generation is that the coloration of the animal is very aurochs-like. The bulls are black and have an eel stripe along the spine. They're already higher on the legs. What's more complicated is the size and shape of the horns. I would say that in some cases you can see an individual animal is 75 percent of where we need to get at. . . . We think in six, seven generations we will get a stabilized group of Taurus cattle. That will take us another seven to 10 years."
The Taurus project was formed as part of the "rewilding" conservation movement. Rewilding involves the restoration of large tracts as much as possible to their pre-human state. This often entails reintroducing key animals and plants that had disappeared.
Cave painting of aurochs, horses, and deer in the Lascaux Caves (France) â€" Photo: Prof saxx
Aurochs once ranged across Europe and much of Asia. A combination of hunting and conversion of wild pastures to farmland reduced Europe's wild aurochs to a small remnant population in a Polish forest, where it was protected by royal order until the last one died in 1628. For more than a century, the Polish royal family tried to save the aurochs, giving villagers tax breaks for cutting hay and feeding them in the winter. But political instability, domestic cattle diseases and other threats finally rendered Europe's early attempt at wildlife conservation a failure.
Rewilding Europe, a nonprofit organization, was formed in 2011 with the goals of creating large natural habitats offering havens to endangered species and, in the case of the aurochs, mimicking the world that they thrived in. The group has selected 10 locations for rewilded parks, with plans to put aurochs in some of them. Work has already begun in seven of the areas.
The case for rewilding parts of Europe - and re-creating the aurochs - is that large tracts are ecologically out of balance. The acreage, much of it former farmland, has become inhospitable to many species of birds, insects, small mammals and predators that evolved in the presence of big animals that compacted and enriched soil while grazing on grass.
The case against both rewilding and making aurochs is that too little is known about how all of these species would interact with each other. The results of releasing aurochs might be difficult to predict, skeptics say.
Manuel Lerdau, a University of Virginia ecologist who studies the dynamics of large-scale wild places, questioned the viability of Rewilding Europe's proposals. He said the project should consider how the introduction of the aurochs would affect other plants and animals.
"If we're targeting one particular member" of an ecosystem, Lerdau said, "what will we need to be thinking about with the other members of the community?"
Simply introducing aurochs and hoping for the best may not be enough, according to Lerdau, who says that without proper preparation the animals might only become extinct again.
"The example that I think of in terms of those larger scales meaning herds of more than just a few dozen animals is the bison in Yellowstone's reintroduction project," Lerdau said, "where it was based on decades of research on grasslands and bison and what it would take to maintain viable bison populations in the face of the constraints of the modern world. We've learned a lot about grasslands, about the ecology of the West as well as about bison as a result of that effort."
Auroch painting from the Ishtar Gate (Istanbul Archaeology Museum) â€" Photo: Brewbooks
Rewilding Europe has a goal of eventually releasing at least 150 Taurus cattle into each rewilded area. Other animals considered for reintroduction include wild horses, wisents (a distant cousin of the American bison) and ibex.
This is not the first attempt to re-create aurochs. In the 1920s, biologists Heinz and Lutz Heck, two brothers, began crossing domestic breeds of cattle at German zoos in a somewhat similar effort. Heck cattle have been used in some European rewilding projects, but the reviews have been mixed.
Goderie said the animals were too small. Valerius Geist, a professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Calgary and a former student of Heinz Heck, disagreed. "They were short-legged, all right, but they were not small," Geist wrote by email.
The Taurus project is using modern genetic technology to establish a benchmark by which to measure success. A complete genome of an aurochs was sequenced in 2014 from a 6,700-year-old humerus bone found in an English cave.
"We want to compare this sequence with sequences which we are generating at the moment from primitive breeds," said Richard Crooijmans, a molecular geneticist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands who is guiding the DNA analysis for the Taurus project. As more Taurus cattle are bred, Crooijmans will compare samples of their DNA to the reconstructed aurochs genome. If the Taurus DNA starts to look more like aurochs DNA, they will know the project is working.
Geist questioned whether similar DNA would mean success. "Chimpanzees and humans have virtually the same genes, but you would hardly issue passports or marriage licenses to chimpanzees."
No matter how closely Taurus cattle come to resemble the aurochs of old, it will be difficult to ever declare victory.
"We're not going to breed back an aurochs," Crooijmans said. "We're going to breed back an aurochs-like animal. The way we're going to do it now is combining animals. We don't know from what time point you want to have an aurochs back. Do you want to have it from the Pleistocene? From the early Holocene? From the Middle Ages?"
With a fossil record stretching back 2 million years, the aurochs had plenty of time to change and adapt. The mild-mannered aurochs of the 1620s may have been different from the Neolithic animal whose bone was used for DNA sequencing.
Commercially raised cattle could be at risk if a nearby wild population of aurochs-like cattle have not been vaccinated. To keep track of the animals and be sure that they have all been vaccinated, they need to be given ear tags. Regular veterinary care and tagging could make it impractical to allow large populations of wild animals to become established. Descended from livestock, the re-created aurochs would be regulated as domestic animals under European Union law, and it is unclear whether any of them could be declared legally wild. Aurochs will officially be domestic cattle.
But there's another way of thinking about this.
"In principle, the aurochs is not really extinct," Crooijmans said. "It's still living in the current cattle breeds, but it's changed so much."
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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