Tetrapod Zoology

Great Asian cattle

Cattle are another of those groups of animals that, while they’re familiar and while we take them for granted, are really pretty incredible. 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.

i-b63619c7c1114d6d7d1ba01558dbc470-Banteng_Markus_Buehler_Berlin_April_2009.jpg


These 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. Banteng hybridise with domestic cattle and gaur when the opportunity arises.

i-eb1c132f96756c74d9a4d9911dca6957-Gaur_Markus_Buehler_Berlin_April_2009.jpg

This is the ultimate in Asian wild cattle: the Gaur, also sometimes called the Seladang or Indian bison. These 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), but they were almost certainly feral, as are various other gayal 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).

i-3dd153b3cdf320f6f0071926ee91284a-Gaur_bull_Markus_Buehler_Berlin_April_2009.jpg

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; 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; 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.

Huh: I just cannot do ‘text-lite’. Thanks to Markus for the photos.

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.

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Hai~Ren
    April 15, 2009

    Cool. I’ve seen both banteng and gaur at the Night Safari in Singapore, and they certainly are very impressive, especially the gaur.

    “form a clade that is outside a domestic cattle + yak + bison clade”

    So we should be talking about Bos bison and Bos bonasus instead, right? Similarly, I’ve seen Bibos being used for gaur and banteng, and Poephagus for yak, so I guess that if we insist on keeping Bison separate from Bos, then we’ll have to resurrect all these other genera.

    I did a post on Asian cattle sometime back, in commemoration of the fact that according to the Chinese zodiac, we are now in the year of the ox.

    http://lazy-lizard-tales.blogspot.com/2009/01/happy-lunar-new-year.html

  2. #2 Mike Keesey
    April 15, 2009

    I’ve seen texts that refer to American bison as “Bos bison” (I think that was the original combination) or, in one case, “Bos americanus” (a junior synonym, I guess). Under that system, bison can still be designated as a subgenus, Bos (Bison) (i.e., Bos (Bison) bison, Bos (Bison) bonasus, etc.).

    Under the PhyloCode, it would be possible to define the name “Bison” as referring to a clade within Bos. Or, if the name “Bos” is used sensu stricto, “Bos” and “Bison” could be defined as referring to related clades with separate origins (but overlapping content: “beefalo”).

  3. #3 Will
    April 15, 2009

    I’m really glad you can’t do text-lite! This was (as usual) fascinating. :)

  4. #4 Michael P. Taylor
    April 15, 2009

    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° C, and this heat radiates through the rest of the tissues, forming a sort of central heating system (Hall 1984)

    [Insert comment on sauropod metabolic dynamics.]

  5. #5 Raaf
    April 15, 2009

    It would be wicked when someone could decipher the tribe bovini (Classification of mammals, McKenna)
    Species like Yakopsis, Ugandax, Eosyncerus (in Asia!), Protobison, Probison, Platybos, Platycerabos, Ioribos and of course my personal favorite Adjiderebos etc etc etc etc)

    It’s like wandering with a minotaur in a immense labyrinth

    Does anybody know when a new Classification will see the light.

    1997
    It’s a horrifying long time ago.

  6. #6 Norris
    April 15, 2009

    “Clade” seems to have a rather ambiguous meaning with cattle. As you mention, they do hybridize and the genetic indications seem to be that they have hybridized. I always found that among the most interesting genetic results is that yaks are related to Bison.

  7. #7 Chris Noto
    April 15, 2009

    Just a thought…is it be possible that the fermentation-derived heat could have been a thermoregulatory source for sauropods and other large non-mammalian herbivores? Has anyone ever factored this in to metabolic models for dinosaurs, etc. before? How much would it depend on the length of the gut and/or compartmental specializations (i.e., the rumen)? Great post!

  8. #8 Mo Hassan
    April 15, 2009

    Rather timely enough, I’ve just blogged about a gaur I saw at Whipsnade last week displaying the flehmen response, here: http://subhumanfreak.blogspot.com/2009/04/photo-of-day-31-gaur.html

  9. #9 Nathan Myers
    April 15, 2009

    The only cattle I have seen that I would call beautiful were on the Indonesian island of Bali. Presumably they are bred for other traits elsewhere.

  10. #10 David Marjanović
    April 15, 2009

    domestic cattle B. taurus

    That’s of course required for the pun B. gaurus to work, but shouldn’t it be lumped into B. primigenius (as of course it has been)?

    [...] even in temperatures approaching -20°C.

    <Spock>Fascinating.</Spock>

    Does anybody know when a new Classification will see the light.

    I think it won’t happen. After all, who needs a classification when you have a phylogeny and nomenclature to apply to the phylogeny?

  11. #11 Darren Naish
    April 15, 2009

    Which names we’re supposed to use for domesticates is a bit complicated: of course, Bos taurus predates B. primigenius (in nomenclatural terms), but the ICZN passed a ruling whereby the ‘wild’ names have priority. Unless, that is, you regard the domesticate as a separate species. I decided to be lazy, though I might try harder in future.

  12. #12 Christopher Taylor
    April 15, 2009

    The case of Bos taurus vs. Bos primigenius is one that I find intriguing as perhaps the most consistently ignored ICZN ruling. As Darren pointed out, the ICZN has ruled that if one name was coined for the domesticated form and one for the wild form, the name of the wild form should have priority regardless of the order in which they were actually published (because of the difficulties of deciding taxonomic coverage of names for domesticated forms, this ruling means that the name for the wild form remains stable even if the name for the domesticated form does not). In most cases (Gallus gallus, Sus scrofa, Felis silvestris) this principle has been followed largely without a quibble. In a couple of cases, though, the ruling has been blatantly ignored. Bos primigenius is probably about the second-most brazen case. The only example I can think of off the top of my head that exceeds it is that I don’t believe I have ever heard anyone refer to a goldfish as Carassius gibelio. Remember, the ICZN only has force because people agree that it has force. One does not get thrown into jail for bad taxonomy (tempting as that might appear on occasion).

    One interesting factoid that Darren didn’t mention about the Coburg Peninsula banteng is that they were “lost” for over a century after the settlement to which they were introduced was abandoned. Other than the local people, everyone else simply forgot that they were there.

  13. #13 Dartian
    April 16, 2009

    Darren:

    In contrast, tropical forms – like gaur and banteng – are decorated with fleshy dewlaps, tall dorsal ridges and other structures that radiate heat.

    Eland, as you recently pointed out in another post, are about the same size as cattle and they have fleshy dewlaps. But why doesn’t the Cape buffalo Syncerus caffer, another large tropical bovine, have such large and obvious heat-radiating structures? (Syncerus admittedly has relatively large ears, but that alone doesn’t seem quite sufficient.) Is walloving in the mud really enough to keep buffalo cool?

  14. #14 Christopher Taylor
    April 16, 2009

    I just thought of another example for my earlier waffling – not many people refer to the domestic horse as Equus ferus, either.

  15. #15 Dr Vector
    April 16, 2009

    the Gaur…can reach a shoulder height of 2.2 m

    Holy blap! At 1.88 meters I am not even the tallest person on my workplace hallway. Still, the thought of a freakin’ bull a third of a meter taller than me at the shoulder scares the livin’ crap outta me.

  16. #16 Hai~Ren
    April 16, 2009

    Christopher: Same goes for the domestic donkey (Equus asinus), goat(Capra hircus) and sheep (Ovis aries). Same goes for guinea pig (Cavia porcellus), llama (Lama glama) and alpaca (Vicugna pacos).

    I’ve also often seen the domestic cat as Felis catus or Felis domesticus.

  17. #17 Darren Naish
    April 16, 2009

    As Chris and Ivan note, there has been a lot of open flouting of the ICZN ruling: for a long complaint on this see Anthea Gentry’s ICZN article here, and also…

    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.

    The ICZN’s ruling (opinion 2027) was ‘only’ made in 2003, however, so it’s still (relatively) early days and I don’t think it’s become as well known as it should be.

  18. #18 William Miller
    April 16, 2009

    @Christopher Taylor: That’s very true about the unenforceability of the ICZN.

    I always wondered why, in the recent Rioarribasuchus/Heliocanthus mess, the relevant scientific community didn’t just go with Heliocanthus regardless of priority.


    Gaur are, indeed, stunningly huge. Are wild ones dangerous in the way African buffalo are?


    Chris Noto, Mike Taylor: That’s a very interesting thought. Considering their large size, generally warm habitat, and now this, how did they keep from overheating? Is there any way to determine what the body temperature of fossil animals was?

  19. #19 Christopher Taylor
    April 16, 2009

    Thanks for the link to that article, Darren – very interesting, because it indicates that I was only right by accident. I was under the impression that the ICZN ruling long pre-dated 2003 (certainly I was “aware” of it some years before then, going back as far as the 1980s), and it turns out that prior to that it had only been a widely-used principle, not any official ruling! (Possibly some of the sources I got the idea from had miscited the 1971 application that, I now learn, actually failed. Ha.

    William:

    I always wondered why, in the recent Rioarribasuchus/Heliocanthus mess, the relevant scientific community didn’t just go with Heliocanthus regardless of priority.

    The problem is the same one that always attends unofficial floutings of the “rules” – our reasoning may seem perfectly good to us now, but without official backing there’s no definite reason for future publications to follow our lead. We may all know at the moment that the publication of Rioarribasuchus was dodgy, but will workers in fifty years time? Will they care? If researchers today all used Heliocanthus, only to have Rioarribasuchus swing back into use down the track, then we could be making our ethical stance at the cost of increasing confusion in the long term, which brings up the question about whether that cost is worth it.

  20. #20 Christopher Taylor
    April 16, 2009

    Ha, I just reached the end of the Gentry et al. article, and there’s an absolute howler of a mistake in the vary last sentence…

  21. #21 Darren Naish
    April 16, 2009

    Ah yes, those feral Bactrians, whoops.

    William: Gaur are reported to mostly avoid people, but lone bulls are dangerous when hunted. They are reportedly not as dangerous and aggressive as are Cape buffalo or wild domestic cattle. There are of course lots of tales of gaurs killing tigers, and tigers killing gaurs. Actually, gaurs seem to be less effective at dealing with big cat predation than some other big cattle, as gaur calves reportedly suffer heavy predation from tigers.

  22. #22 Dartian
    April 16, 2009

    Christopher:

    there’s an absolute howler of a mistake in the vary last sentence

    Muphry’s [sic] law strikes again…

  23. #23 Stevo Darkly
    April 17, 2009

    Eland, as you recently pointed out in another post, are about the same size as cattle and they have fleshy dewlaps. But why doesn’t the Cape buffalo Syncerus caffer, another large tropical bovine, have such large and obvious heat-radiating structures? (Syncerus admittedly has relatively large ears, but that alone doesn’t seem quite sufficient.) Is walloving in the mud really enough to keep buffalo cool?

    Interesting question. I wonder, maybe the large, swooping horns of the Cape buffalo act as heat radiators? I’m not an expert on horn structure, but I understand that the horn cores underneath the keratin are living tissue with blood vessels in them? Also, I’ve heard speculation that the horns of ceratopsian (or ceratopian) dinosaurs may have functioned as heat radiators as well, so why not with large cattle?

    Asian water buffalo don’t have dewlaps either, do they? But they do have those huge, swooping horns.

  24. #24 Dartian
    April 17, 2009

    Stevo:

    Asian water buffalo don’t have dewlaps either, do they? But they do have those huge, swooping horns.

    The water buffalo Bubalus bubalis doesn’t have prominent dewlaps, no, but it spends much of its time in water, which helps to cool it down. Syncerus is usually more terrestrial in its habits.

    But your suggestion that large horns might play some significant role in bovine temperature regulation is very interesting. Do any of Tet Zoo’s thermoregulation-knowledgeable regulars wish to comment on it?

  25. #25 A. willow
    April 18, 2009

    Ah yes,bantengs.There were two bantengs in the (small) zoo near where I lived when I was small.I remember vividly the time I accidentally touched the electric wire running round their enclosure. Zap! It took me half an hour to recover from the shock,and I kept my distance from that day on.They are very impressive beasts,though,and I doubt the charge would have bothered if they were really bent on leaving.

  26. #26 Rosel
    April 19, 2009

    Shame our European Aurochsen are extinct except for the facsimiles in Munich.
    In fact I wrote a post about Aurochsen and how they were co-opted as part of the Nazi propaganda machine, after hearing a programme about them on Radio 4.

    http://armchairzoologist.blogspot.com/2009/02/uberoxen-nazis-and-polish-resistance.html

    (everyone seems to have posts on cattle, it seems!)

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.