We have domesticated many species of animals for work and our own pleasure. The most infamous of them are probably dogs, which have become one of human’s closest animal friend. Sometimes, the animals we domesticate find themselves in the wild and, in some cases, make their way to their wilder cousins. This was the case with a cow in Poland.
The reddish-brown Limousin cow was first spotted by Ornithologist Adam Zbyryt, as reported by TVN24, near the Bialowieza Forest in Poland in November 2017. The cow was seen hanging near the edges of a Bison herd and appeared to be a juvenile female. Given that this was a domesticated cow hanging around some wild bison, naturalist assumed that it would go back home eventually. The cow, however, had other plans.
Recently, biologist Rafal Kowalczyk saw the same cow roaming with the bison herd rather than hanging around the fringe of them. It appeared healthy and happy, meaning that it was getting adequate food and water despite absconding from its home. According to Jim Matheson, assistant director of the National Bison Association, these interaction between cows and bison are rare, but not impossible.
These cows, known for their thick fur and strong muscles, are adapted for the wild and cold temperature. Coupled with the successful integration into the bison herd, the cow will do well in the wild for the moment. There are concerns shared by both biologists and conservationists about the cow’s involvement with the bison.
Limousin cows are a breed of very strong beef cattle originating from the Limousin and Marche regions of France. These cows are highly prized because they have been bred to produce high-quality beef for consumption as well as crossbreed with other cows to improve their overall quality.
Like other modern cows, Limousins are descended from Aurochs, which went extinct in the 17th century. The limousins are known for their light red-brown coloring and their horns. They are also known for their size, with males reaching over 2,200 lbs.
The success of breeding limousins along with the high-quality meat they produced allowed them to be a valued commodity. Their ability to survive and adapt to the environments across Europe made them easy to grow and reproduce in places like Poland. There are currently millions of Limousin cows across France and much more across the rest of Europe.
As they have also been used for crossbreeding, genes from these cows can be found in other breeds including Angus and Shorthorn.
The European Bison
The escaped cow has joined a herd of European Bison. European Bison is one of two existing species of Bison with the other being the American Bison. With males weighing in at 880 to 2,030 lb, the European Bison is the heaviest wild land animal in Europe. This title is precarious because the European Bison is a vulnerable species.
They were widely distributed across western, central, and south-eastern Europe and the Caucasus, but by the end of the 19th century, they went extinct. The onset of World War I brought soldiers into contact with the bison populations and they hunted them in large numbers. Extensive hunting led to the extinction of wild European Bison in 1919 as the last one was shot in the Bialowieza Forest.
To recover the wild populations, plans were implemented to take the small populations existing in zoos and begin introducing them into wild environments, with the hope that captivity did not diminish their ability to survive in the wild. Fortunately, reintroduction efforts were successful and there are now thousands of European Bison across Europe.
The recovery of these animals is not certain, as they are still considered vulnerable by the ICUN Red List and they still face many problems. They are hunted by predators, including wolfs, and they are subject to problems and concerns of humans, the species that reduced their population.
The largest populations can be found in Poland and Romania. Researchers will continue to carefully breed small populations of bison and slowly introduce them into pockets of Europe to allow the populations to spread and grow with a minimal competition for resources.
The efforts and success of this revival program will be studied across the world and put to use in recovering other populations that have survived with only captive populations.
Conservation & Consequence
While an escaped cow entering a bison herd may not seem like the worst idea, its integration into the herd poses concerns for both the cow and the bison herd. European Bison are larger than the Limousin cow. If the bison were to try to mate with the cow, any offspring would be hybrid of the two species.
While there are many hybrid species in the world, including ligers and mules, the hybrid from this pairing would greatly endanger the cow. The hybrid would be significantly larger than the normal cow-calf, which would probably kill the cow during delivery.
The other problem is that European Bison are still a vulnerable species and any hybrid offspring would endanger the genetic pool of the herd. Recent estimates say that they are 600 beefalos, the crossbreed name, roaming the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, further indicating the uncommon nature of these crossbreeding.
The whole point of the conservation effort is to introduce European Bison into the wild so that they flourish and recover the bison’s population and genetic pool. Any outside genes entering the bison population would run the risk of turning the wild bison into something different.
Any cow-bison hybrid that is created would likely lead to the death of the cow and contamination of the bison gene pool
If creating a bison population was all that they wanted, then they could have introduced the American Bison instead of going through this effort. Rather, they wanted the species to reclaim its place in Europe.
For the time being, the cow can enjoy its venture into the wild. However, plans are being made to remove the cow from the herd in the summer. It is currently too young and cannot breed, so scientists want to remove it before any hybrid can be created.