Almost 200 years ago, Charles Darwin, during an expedition to Argentina, documented a cow that had the facial features of a bulldog. Today, scientists have reconstructed the extinct bovine species to study its genetic makeup, Phys.org reports.
“Very few people know that hundreds of years ago a cow with a face similar to the shape of a bulldog’s existed, called the niata cow,” says Dr. Laura Wilson, a member of the team behind the study.
According to Phys.org, Charles Darwin discovered the animal known as the Niata in the Argentinian Pampas and on the land surrounding Buenos Aires in the 1840s. In his notes, Darwin questioned its physiology and wondered about the strange shape of its head and its relationship to other cow breeds. Rütimeyer, the famous Swiss anatomist, also documented the existence of the Niata in his studies of cattle.
This new study seems to answer some of the questions that Darwin had about the Niata cow.
“In our study, we set out to find out more about some of the animal’s anatomical and genetic characteristics. Our principal finding is that the niata was a taurine breed, unique among cattle,” said Professor Sánchez-Villagra, a scientist at the University of Zurich, and a co-author of the study.
Although the species is now extinct, you can still find their skeletons scattered around in collections around the world. The team used advanced genetic technology that allowed them to gain a deeper understanding of the perplexing bovine animal.
“Until this paper, no attempt to use new and useful methods to understand the anatomy and the evolution of this peculiar cow has ever been made. We used genetics, non-invasive imaging and engineering-inspired biomechanical analyses – tools unavailable at Darwin’s time,” says Professor Sánchez-Villagra.
They concluded that Charles Darwin was right about the Niata cow. It is “a true cattle breed” with unique characteristics in its cranium. The term “true cattle breed” means that its features are distinct from other breeds and have been maintained over a long period of time.
As Live Science reports, previous research seemed to indicate that the Niata’s unique cranial shape may have been the result of a health condition called chondrodysplasia, which can stunt cartilage growth and lead to shorter limbs and faces. But it’s actually a “persistent trait” that separated them from other cattle. Live Science adds that the trait would have been passed on to younger cows even after interbreeding with other types of cattle.
This also means that it’s unlikely that the Niata went extinct because of their genetic makeup. The team concluded that since the breed went extinct at the height of the cattle raising industry in Argentina. So, it looks like the cow with the face of the bulldog was sidestepped for breeding by other, more regular-looking breeds.