Posts Tagged ‘Florida cracker cattle’

Florida Cracker Cattle (Bos taurus)

May 23, 2018

Even if there were no historical accounts, modern scientists could determine when European livestock were introduced to the Americas.  Scientists can take cores of sediment, radio-carbon date it, and measure the amount of sporomiella in each dated layer.  Sporomiella is a dung fungus spore found in the excrement of large mammals and is used as a proxy to estimate megafauna populations.  Scientists know when Pleistocene megafauna populations collapsed in some regions based on the amount of sporomiella in sediment, and they also can determine when European livestock were introduced using the same method.  Following the introduction of cows, horses, and pigs; the amount of sporormiella in the environment spiked to levels often equivalent to those of the pre-late Pleistocene extinctions.

Introduced livestock frequently outlasted the initial expeditions that brought them.  Early Spanish explorers of the 16th and 17th centuries perished with regularity in the harsh New World environments, so far from their accustomed European civilization, and some were massacred by Indians, but the cattle, pigs, and horses they brought with them ran wild.  The Europeans and their livestock carried contagious infections that decimated Indian populations with primitive immune systems as well, and feral livestock thrived in environments with low numbers of people.  The husbandry practices of early European settlers facilitated the increase of feral livestock populations.  Busy missionaries and homesteaders let their animals forage in the woods and fields, and the beasts often escaped and joined their free cousins.  Local environmental conditions shaped the evolution of feral livestock, weeding out those not adapted to living wild under each region’s unique conditions.  New breeds were born.

The Florida cracker cattle, also known as the piney woods cattle, rapidly evolved to thrive in the open pine savannahs of Florida and south Georgia.  They are related to the better known Texas longhorn cattle and also descend from cattle brought by the earliest of Spanish explorers.  They were already adapted to the warm climate of Spain, but in Florida the breed evolved tolerance for the humidity and local parasites. The tough cattle readily produced many calves on the low quality grasslands of the region, and their ferocity helped them fend off cougars, wolves, and bears.   Florida cracker cattle may be the “buffalo” that William Oglethorpe, the man who founded the state of Georgia, hunted during the early 18th century.  Colonial Europeans used the term “buffalo” interchangeably for both bison and feral cattle.  William Bartram saw great mixed herds of Florida cracker cattle, horses, and deer when he traveled through Florida in 1776.

Image result for Florida cracker cattle

Florida cracker cattle.  They are small–bulls weigh between 800 pounds to 1200 pounds.  Most are brown or partly brown and white but they come in a variety of coat colors.  The name cracker comes from the British settlers, known as crackers, because they cracked whips when they drove livestock on the road.

Florida cracker cattle were the best breed of cattle able to survive in the deep south until Brahman bulls from India were introduced during the 1930s.  Then, scientists invented antibiotics and medicines to treat parasites, and farmers were able to raise more productive breeds of cattle which they crossbred with the native cattle.  The Florida state legislature passed a law in 1949 outlawing free ranging cattle because farmers wanted to prevent the transmission of diseases from wild cattle to their preferred domestic breeds.  The Florida cracker cattle population plummeted.  Now, there is an effort to save the breed.  38 people still raise Florida cracker cattle, and herds are maintained at the Tallahassee Agricultural Complex, Withlacoochee State Park, Lake Kissimmee State Park, Payne’s Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, and Dudley Farm.  Customers who like free-roaming grass fed beef pay top dollar for meat butchered from the breed.

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