Skip to comments.Cambodia's National Animal Never Existed, Scientists Say
Posted on 11/03/2006 5:30:09 PM PST by blam
Cambodia's National Animal Never Existed, Scientists Say
for National Geographic News
November 3, 2006
The national animal of Cambodia probably never really existed, a team of researchers says, at least in the scientific sense.
Since 1960 the Southeast Asian nation has claimed the koupreyan ox with spectacular crescent-shaped horns and a dewlap under its chinas its national symbol.
But after conducting genetic tests, a team of researchers from Chicago's Northwestern University has concluded that the animal was most probably not a unique species at all.
The researchers, led by Northwestern biologist Gary J. Galbreath, sequenced the genes of two wild oxen called banteng and compared them with a previously published DNA sequence of the kouprey.
"We're not sure what the kouprey was," Galbreath said. "What we're doing is opening up debate on this issue, a debate which hasn't really occurred in about half a century.
"There are five or six explanations for our data, but the explanation that fits the data best is that [the kouprey is] a domestic ox that went wild. We think the kouprey is almost certainly extinct, whatever it was."
History of a Hybrid?
The story of the kouprey seems to begin in 1940, when the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology put on display what it described as a new species of ox.
The exhibit featured a mounted specimen of an animal shot in 1937 in what is now Cambodia. It was a bull ox, weighing almost a ton. A press report at the time described the creature as "the first new genus of large living mammals to be discovered since 1900."
The kouprey became so famous that in 1960 it was named the national animal of Cambodia, and over the years there have been vigorous efforts to preserve its diminishing numbers.
By 1996 it had been declared critically endangered, with an estimate of fewer than 250 left in the wild.
But the newspaper, and the conservationists, may have spoken too soon. Instead it is likely a feral form of a domestic animal, the scientists say, probably a hybrid of the mainland banteng and the zebu, strains of both of which are common among domestic oxen in Southeast Asia.
"We do know the mitochondrial DNA for the kouprey," Galbreath said. "If the kouprey was a domestic hybrid, our notion was to see if Cambodian banteng were similar to kouprey. And sure enough, as predicted, they were.
"[We] made a genetic prediction that most people wouldn't have believed correct, but we found that it was correct," he added.
The authors note that Cambodian farmers in the recent past reportedly used a kind of semi-feral ox to work in rice fields. This animal, the authors suggest, may have been the koupreyliving wild but still partially dependent on human contact.
The conclusion made by Galbreath and his colleagues is controversial, and some experts regard it as premature.
"There are several other scenarios that would explain their finding equally well," said Hans Lestra, associate professor of genetics at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
"If the kouprey is of mixed-species origin, hybridization with domestic zebus is just one of the possibilities. Maybe, maybe not."
Lestra also argues that the team's studywhich appears in the Journal of Zoologydoesn't live up to its title: "Genetically Solving a Zoological Mystery."
"No genetic mystery has been solved," Lestra said. "For this, additional research would be required, such as a comparison of paternally transmitted Y-chromosomal sequences of kouprey with those of banteng and zebu. However, Galbreath [and team] never analyzed any kouprey samples."
"By 'solving the mystery,' we mean making a step toward that," Galbreath responded.
"We're not claiming that an absolute conclusion can be come to at this point, but the most probable explanation is that this is an escaped domestic species."
Alexandre Hassanin of France's National Museum of Natural History says that the case remains unsettled.
In a paper still under review, he writes that "we need to analyze banteng from Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam to give a definitive conclusion on the taxonomic status of banteng and kouprey."
Galbreath agrees that more data is needed.
"This is going to set off a considerable amount of debate," he said, "and that's part of our purpose. This is certainly going to stimulate people to obtain other kinds of genetic information from other wild cattle, particularly banteng."
Cambodia is fixing the problem by adopting a new "national animal"...the Jackalope.
"Honey, vampires are just magical creatures like leprechauns and dragons and Eskimos." Homer Simpson
Kouprey, or not kouprey, that is the question.
The classics. They just never wear out.
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