A team of scientists has reconstructed an already extinct cow with a peculiar flat face similar to that of the bulldogs, pugs, and boxers today.
In the 1840s, the niata cow, with flattened face and underbite, which was far from the usual long and semi-pointed faces of the bovines, picked the interest of Charles Darwin. He attempted to study it, know its anatomy, and how it interacts with the other cattle. He wanted to know whether the cow's bodily functions were different from the ways of the regular cow breeds.
Darwin concluded then that the niata cow was a "true breed" with distinctive cranial features.
The niata cow had also been the subject of one of the studies conducted by Swiss anatomist Ludwig Rutimeyer, who was considered as one of the fathers of zooarchaeology in the 1800s.
From Darwin and Rutimeyer, there had been no subsequent studies that were able to determine the importance of the unique anatomical functions of the niata cow to the breed's way of life. No other studies have also offered answers as to why the animals went extinct.
Now, a study, published in the journal Scientific Reports on June 14, provided the first analysis of the niata cow's unique anatomical and genetic composition.
Cow With Bulldog Face
The study, conducted by a team of Australian and Swiss scientists, involved reconstructing the extinct cow from the available skeletal remains of the animals. The technique they used at present was not yet accessible to researchers during the 19th century.
"We used genetics, non-invasive imaging and engineering-inspired biomechanical analyses - tools unavailable at Darwin's time," said Marcelo Sanchez-Villagra, the coauthor of the study and a scientist from the University of Zurich.
Niata Cow Is A 'True Breed'
Through advanced computational modeling tools, the team confirmed Darwin's conclusion that the peculiar cow was a "true breed."
"A true breed is a kind which is preserved over time in its features and can be distinguished from other breeds - even if crosses with other breeds do occur," explained Laura Wilson, a scientist from the University of New South Wales Sydney.
Furthermore, they found that unlike with some bulldogs, the flat facial features did not cause any breathing or eating issues for the niata cows. In fact, the flat cranial structure gave the niata cows their unique chewing advantage. They can grind their food without making it too stressful for their skull bones.
Domestication And Extinction
The present study was still unsuccessful in determining the exact cause of the extinction of the niata cows. However, since it was found that niata can eat, breathe, and thrive like the normal cattle, the team can conclude that the breed went extinct because of domestication. This insight was supported by various records showing that the breed's extinction took place at the same time as cattle raising became widespread in Argentina.
The insights about the niata cow could, therefore, contribute to studies suggesting ways on how to protect other threatened species at present.