Posts Tagged ‘zebu’

A French veterinarian named Dr. Sauvel shot this kouprey in Cambodia. He made a trophy out of the horns and displayed them at his home in France. The French zoologist Achille Urbain discovered the horns at Sauvel's home and thought they might represent a new species. He would later use this discovery to confirm that a wild cow brought over from Cambodia was actually a unique species, which he called the kouprey and named Bos sauveli in honor of the veterinarian who shot this specimen.

Some people might be a little surprised with the findings of a recent study that showed that the s0-called red wolf is nothing more than a coyote with some wolf ancestry. Because the Eastern US is full of coyotes with wolf ancestry, one might be open to questioning the validity of the red wolf as a unique species– much less an endangered one.

I think the bulk of the evidence shows that the red wolf as we know it now is a contrived species.  The so-called red wolves of earlier times may have been the original eastern population of coyote that was exterminated along with the wolves that were native to the same region.  And the so-called Eastern wolf species has been found to be a wolf with some coyote ancestry. What we’re calling an Eastern coyote today is primarily Western coyote with some wolf and dog crossed in.

Both of these animals are derived from hybrids that existed in the wild. The wolves of the western Great Lakes region had coyote genes introduced into their populations 600 to 900 years ago, but the vast majority of these animals would not have existed had Western man not killed off all the wolves in the East.

As difficult as it is for people to accept, the Eastern wolf and the red wolf likely are not valid species. One is a wolf with some coyote genes, and the other is a coyote with some wolf genes.

However, there have been cases in which an animal was declared a hybrid, but then later studies revealed actually to be a unique species after all.

Probably the best example of a hybrid origin being falsified in recent years is the kouprey.

The kouprey is a wild cattle species that lives primarily in Cambodia, but it can also be found in adjacent parts of Laos and Thailand.

If you’ve never heard of a kouprey, it’s because they are very rare, and they were only described to science in 1937. A French zoologist named Achille Urbain discovered some unusual horns that were mounted as a hunting trophy in the home of a veterinarian who had worked in Cambodia. After examining the horns closely, Urbain thought that they might come from a new species.  One animal wound up at the Vincennes Zoo in Paris, which Urbain used as his holotype specimen. Later, Harvard zoologist Harold Jefferson Coolidge would elevate the kouprey to its own genus, which he called Novibos (“the new ox.”)

It was the last of the cattle species to have been documented by science, and it was one of the last large species of land mammal to have been documented.

For decades, it was treated as an enigmatic species of wild cattle. The Cambodian people recognized the uniqueness of this animal, which occurred almost exclusively within their nation’s borders, and they declared the kouprey to be their national animal.

Lots of romance and national identity was tied up in the kouprey.

Then, in 2006, Northwestern University biologist Gary Galbreath co-authored an article that revealed that the kouprey was nothing more than a cross between the zebu (indicus domestic cattle species) and the banteng, a much more common species of cattle that is native to Southeast Asia and also exists as a domestic animal.  This zebu/banteng hybrid then went wild in the Cambodian forest.

Galbreath’s study compared mitochondrial DNA fromCambodian banteng and two captive kouprey from a Cambodian wildlife rescue facility.  This study merely examined the cytochrome b gene, but it found that the two kouprey were actually very similar to the banteng.

This study went out into the popular press as declaring the kouprey an entirely made-up species.

However, not everyone was so convinced.

Galbreath’s claim was a major affront to a major paradigm within bovine taxonomy.

So it needed a more in depth analysis to see if the hybrid origin theory for the kouprey was actually true.

Two French zoologists, Alexandre Hassanin and Anne Ropiquet, analyzed three mitochondrial DNA regions and five nuclear DNA fragments that represented 4582 nucleotides.  They found that kouprey have nuclear DNA that is quite distinct from banteng or zebu, and the reason why Galbreath received such a close overlap between Cambodian banteng and kouprey is that the banteng of Cambodia have hybridized with kouprey.  Somewhere along the line, a domestic banteng bull mated with a kouprey cow, and the descendants of these hybrids comprise a large proportion of the banteng in Cambodia.  A fossilized skull of a kouprey was also discovered that was dated to the Pleistocene or early Holocene– well before indicus cattle were domesticated.

Galbreath has since rejected his initial findings.

This study that looked at nuclear DNA in the kouprey looked at much smaller part of the genome than the study that found no evidence for an Eastern wolf species and found the red wolf to be predominantly coyote in origin.

Yet this study very quickly discovered that the kouprey has very unique genetic markers.

This study very clearly falsified the hypothesis that the kouprey was derived from a hybrid between indicus cattle and the banteng.

That has not happened with the red wolf or the Eastern wolf. Indeed, the study that found them to be hybrid in origin was perhaps the most in depth analysis of wolf and coyote nuclear DNA ever performed.

It is possible to falsify the hypothesis that organisms are hybrid in origin.  In the case of the red wolf and the Eastern wolf, it has not been.

But in the case of the kouprey, it clearly has.


I would be remiss if I didn’t say that no one has seen a wild kouprey since 1983.

They may very well be extinct in the wild.

So I guess it’s good to know that this animal actually was a valid species.

But that would have been nicer to have known while they were still relatively common.

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