Posts Tagged ‘aurochs’

Wilderness Rebounded Following the Black Death

August 24, 2020

The recent ill-advised lockdown that failed to stop the spread of the coronavirus reduced human activity for several months, and the wildlife noticed.  Deer and coyote, normally more active at night, began roaming big city streets in broad day light.  It doesn’t take long for wilderness to rebound when the presence of humans is diminished or eliminated.  The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is now 1 of the greatest nature reserves in the world, thanks to radiation fallout which makes the area an unpopular place for people to reside.  Past epidemics have led to the rebound of wilderness.  Europeans introduced many infectious diseases to the Americas, resulting in an 80% reduction in Indian populations.  Many Europeans then mistakenly believed the Americas had always been a sparsely populated segment of the world.  They collectively forgot their own past history with the bubonic plague.

The bubonic plague is believed to have originated in the Gobi Desert, possibly in the gerbil population.  Fleas spread the dangerous bacteria (Yersinia pestis) to the Mongolian raiders descended from Ghengis Khan who then carried it to Europe during hostile invasions and through free trade.  During 1347 a merchant ship with an 100% infection rate arrived in Venice, Italy and soon the plague spread throughout Europe in fleas carried by rats.  People slept on straw mats, crowded together in unsanitary condition, and bubonic plague outbreaks exploded.  In addition to being flea-borne the bacteria could be transmitted through the air between people in close contact with each other. The plague is an horrible disease, killing people in 3-4 days, and the victims die in agony–their lymph glands literally burst with toxic bacterial waste and white blood cells.  The victims turn back, hence the name “Black Death.”  50% of the population died.  Not enough agricultural workers remained alive to harvest the crops, and combined with bad weather from the onset of The Little Ice Age, famine soon followed the plague.  Wild animals and wilderness soon took over much of rural Europe.

Fast and lethal, the Black Death spread more than a mile per day

Bubonic plague, originating in Asia, decimated European populations for 2 centuries and wilderness areas rebounded.

Aspen Glow. A Limited Edition Fine Art Print from Peter Lik. – LIK ...

Birch and aspen trees quickly sprouted in abandoned fields that were soon replaced by oak forests with trees that eventually grew 150 feet tall.

Białowieża

Huge oak trees like this grew on abandoned agricultural land following the Black Death.

Grass growing in abandoned grain fields fed herds of wild cattle and horses recently freed from their dead human masters, and these escapees interbred with their wild cousins.  Bison expanded their range.  Soon birch and aspen forests sprouted in the fields, and moose invaded the new natural areas to feed on the saplings.  Brown bears enjoyed the fruits of long neglected orchards.  Eventually, oak trees shaded out the birch forests, and they grew to enormous size–the acorns feeding wild boars and roe deer.  Lynx and wolves reclaimed land they’d lost in the previous centuries.

The Significance of Aurochs | borderslynn

The aurochs, the ancestor of modern cows, along with cattle that went feral roamed the European countryside in the years following the Black Death.  The Black Death likely delayed the extinction of the aurochs by centuries.  They didn’t become extinct until 1527.

The Odd Couple!! (Wild Red Deer Stag & Horse) | Horses, Animals ...

Red deer and horse populations increased when human populations decreased.

King Jagiello escaped an outbreak of the plague in 1426 when he retreated to an hunting manor in the Bialowitza woods.  No roads or bridges penetrated this vast wilderness.  Royalty protected this wilderness for centuries, and today it is just a partial remnant of the post Black Death rebound of nature.

Author Mimi Matthews

Wolf packs took over when humans disappeared from large areas of Europe.

Before Cows were Cowed

June 28, 2016

One of the comments below a youtube video showing water buffalo (Syncerus caffer) defending a calf from lion predation expressed ridicule toward the big cats for being chased away by “a bunch of cows.”  The word, cow, used as a verb, descends from the Old Norse word, Kuga, meaning to oppress, intimidate, or easily herd; and the word, coward, originates from the Latin word, cauda, meaning tail or tail between the legs.  The origins of the 2 words might be interrelated, though the noun form of cow is likely a verbalization of the lowing sound cows make.  Modern cows were bred to be cowed, as in easily herded.  However, the ancestor of the cow, the aurochs, (Bos primigenius), was anything but easily herded.  They were larger and fiercer than modern cattle and readily attacked man on sight.  Nevertheless, they became extinct.  The last known aurochs was killed in Poland during 1627.  For propaganda reasons the Nazis bred primitive cattle in an attempt to bring the aurochs back, creating a breed known as the Heck.  Although the Heck never reached the size of the aurochs, some individuals are so aggressive that modern farmers find them impossible to raise.  Wild cattle are dangerous, and a more informed person would not ridicule lions trying not to get trampled and gored.

Prehistoric cave painting of an aurochs, the much larger and more aggressive ancestor of modern cattle.

Amazingly, humans somehow began to tame and breed the aurochs, probably about 8,000 years ago.  The early herdsmen selected individuals for smaller size, reduced aggression, easier herding, and better disease resistance.  Genetic evidence from a 6700 year old cow bone found in Derbyshire, England suggests the early domesticated cattle occasionally back bred with the aurochs.  Domestication of the aurochs took place in 2 different geographical regions.  Aurochs, tamed and bred in eastern Europe, are the ancestors of Bos taurus, and the Indian aurochs was bred into Bos indica.

Florida cracker cattle descend from cows brought to North America by the Spanish in the 1500s.

Bos indica.  They descend from a geographically separate population of aurochs than Bos taurus.

Texas longhorn cattle are Bos taurus x Bos indica hybrids.  Wild longhorns are tough animals capable of fighting off wolves, bears, and cougars.  Hundreds of thousands ranged Texas and Mexico from ~1700-~1900.

Early Spanish explorers and settlers brought cattle to North America during the 16th century.  They were let loose in the woods and fields to forage, and soon there were large herds of feral cattle wandering southeastern North America.  Wayne Van Horne critically reviewed all of the early accounts of bison in the region, and he determined most of these were probably referring to feral cattle rather than bison.  European colonists used the term, buffalo, interchangeably for either wild cattle or bison.  Most had never seen a bison, and there were no field guides that could’ve aided a correct identification.  Van Horne thinks the “buffalo” General Oglethorpe, the man who founded Georgia, hunted in 1746 were actually feral cattle.  The Great Buffalo Lick, located in central Georgia, may be misnamed because feral cattle were licking the soil there, not bison.  William Bartram saw great mixed herds of feral cattle, horses, and deer but never saw a buffalo when he traveled through the south from 1773-1776.  He did see bones of buffalo, but these could’ve been the bones of wild cattle.  However, Van Horne does note 3 credible accounts of bison in the deep south.  Mark Catesby correctly described bison ranging near Fort Moore along the border of central Georgia and South Carolina.  John Lawson reliably reported bison migrating through a mountain pass to the Cape Fear River in North Carolina.  And some early Spanish explorers saw bison feeding in abandoned Indian fields located on the panhandle of Florida.  The historical evidence suggests bison were very rare in the post-Pleistocene deep south, but the population of feral cattle here exploded during European colonization.  By the Civil War the cattle population of Florida was 700,000 vs. 140,000 people, and most of these herds were feral.

The longleaf pine savannahs that supported large herds of wild cattle in the deep south were also excellent habitat for sandhill cranes, Canadian geese, and turkeys.  Cattle grazing improves habitat for burrowing owls and caracaras.  Payne’s Prairie in central Florida is a remnant of habitat where bison, Florida cracker cattle, and a rich diversity of birdlife can still be found.  Some day, I hope to visit Payne’s Praire, but I can’t get other family members interested in it as a vacation destination.

References:

Park, Stephen; et. al.

“Genome Sequencing of the Extinct Eurasian Wild Aurochs, Bos primigenius, Illuminates the Phylogeography and Evolution of Cattle”

Genome Biology 2015

Van Horne, Wayne

“A Critical Assessment of Evidence Relating to the Range of the American Bison (Bison bison) in Georgia”

Early Georgia 40 (2) 2013