Bos taurusaurochs(Also: domesticated cattle)

Geographic Range

Like most domestic animals, Bos taurus (domestic cow) is currently found throughout much of the world. The wild ancestors of cows were native to northern Africa, Europe, and southern Asia. (Nowak, 1997)


Domestic cows are common and can be found throughout the world. Cattle are born and raised on rangelands. Rangelands are unfertilized, uncultured, and not irrigated. Also, they must contain adequate areas for grazing.

Physical Description

Domestic cows are large, sturdy animals. Weight ranges from 147 kilograms to 1363 kilograms, and height from 49-52 inches. The body is covered in short hair, the color of which varies from black through white, reddish brown, and brown. Domestic cows have short necks with dewlaps hanging below the chin. They have two hollow horns and a long tufted tail. They can be used as working animals for plowing and moving heavy loads. Domestic cows have no upper incisors, instead they have a thick layer called the dental pad. The jaws are designed for the circular grinding motion used to crush coarse vegetation. (Rath 1998; Walker et al. 1975 Reprogen 1997) (Rath, 1998; Reprogen, 1997; Walker, et al., 1975)

  • Range mass
    147 to 1363 kg
    323.79 to 3002.20 lb
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    306.77 W


Domestic cows are social animals and live in groups called herds. Each herd is led by a dominant male who is the sole male to mate with the rest of the females. (Hinshaw, 1993; Huffman, January 1st, 2000; Walker, et al., 1975)

Mating may occur year round, though more calves are born in spring months. One calf is born after approximately nine months of gestation. Young Bos taurus are preocial, they learn to recognize their mother and are able to stand and walk soon after birth. Young domestic cows nurse for approximately six months. Females reach sexual maturity at approximately one year and mating can continue to about twelve years.

(Hindsaw 1993; Walker et al. 1975; Huffman 2000) (Hinshaw, 1993; Huffman, January 1st, 2000; Walker, et al., 1975)

  • Breeding interval
    Cattle tend to reproduce once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs throughout the year.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 2
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average number of offspring
  • Average gestation period
    9 months
  • Average gestation period
    277 days
  • Average weaning age
    6 months
  • Average time to independence
    12 months
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    Sex: female
    548 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years

Young are nursed by their mother for approximately 6 months and become independent during the following 6 months.


Maximum lifespan in domestic cows may exceed 20 years. However, lifespan is often limited by human culling. (Nowak, 1997)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    >20 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: captivity
    20 (high) years


Cow herds are structured according to a dominance hierarchy. Each individual must yield to those above it in the hierarchy. Calves adopt their mother's status in the hierarchy. Females are often protective of their young and chase anything that threatens them. Females also share parental care within the group. Dominant males maintain this status until defeated by younger males in challenges. (Hindsaw 1993; Walker et al. 1975) (Hinshaw, 1993; Walker, et al., 1975)

Communication and Perception

Cows communicate via chemical signals, touch, visual cues, and sounds. They perceive their environment primarily using the same set of senses.

Food Habits

Domestic cows feed on grasses, stems, and other herbaceous plant material. An average cow can consume about 70kg of grass in an 8 hour day. Cows twist grasses around the tongue and cut them with their lower teeth. Domestic cows are ruminants. Ruminants have a special system of digestion which allows for the breakdown of the relatively indigestible plant material which they consume. Cows have a four chambered stomach including a rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum. Grass passes through the rumen where it is mixed with specialized bacteria. From the rumen it moves to the reticulum, where it is broken down further. The partly digested food, known as cud, is regurgitated and chewed. It is then swallowed and moves into the omasum and abomasum, where digestive enzymes break it down further and nutrients are absorbed. The process of digestion takes 70-100 hours, one of the slowest passage rates of all animals. This method of digestion permits ruminants to obtain the most nutrients possible from these plant materials.

(Rath 1998; Hindsaw 1993; Walker et al. 1975) (Hinshaw, 1993; Rath, 1998; Walker, et al., 1975)

  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • roots and tubers
  • wood, bark, or stems


The wild ancestors of domestic cows were likely preyed on by large carnivores such as wolves, lions, humans, and bears. The majority of predation would have been on calves or sick and elderly individuals. Currently cows are sometimes preyed on by large, wild carnivores but the vast majority of predation is by humans. Their large size and herding behavior would have provided protection against predators.

Ecosystem Roles

Cows modify environments through grazing. In areas where their population numbers are artificially increased by humans, they can severely impact natural systems, causing erosion, introduction of non-native grasses and herbaceous plants, destruction of riparian habitats, and overgrazing.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Domestic cows are used widely by humans for a variety of purposes. Cows are used primarily for dairy products (milk, cheese, etc.) and meat. They are also used for things such as medicines, glue, soap, and leather. Males are used for pulling large loads or for plowing the soil because of their large size and strength. The dung is a good source of fertilizer and fuel. Cows are also often important culturally and as a form of currency. (Rath 1993; Hindsaw 1998; Encyclopedia Britannica Online 2000) ("", 1999-2000; Hinshaw, 1993; Nowak, 1997; Rath, 1998)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

A negative aspect of domestic cattle husbandry is the transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, better known as Mad Cow Disease. An outbreak in British cattle has caused international concern and resulted in multiple human infections. Mad Cow Disease is a fatal degenerative brain disease, which is caused by a protein known as a prion. In humans, the equivalent of bovine spongiform encephalopaty is Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease ("CJD"), which causes a rapid dementia, and neurological damage leading to death. The disease is now believed to be linked to eating beef from infected cows. This disease has killed many people in Europe, therefore causing a ban on all importation of British beef by European countries.

In addition, range cattle are responsible for the transmission of diseases to native wildlife and rapid, and sometimes irreversible, damage to natural ecosystems.

(Brown 1996) (Brown, March 1996)

Conservation Status

There is some interest in conserving rapidly disappearing rare breeds and breeds that may have desirable qualities, such as Texas longhorn cattle and a number of older European breeds. However, as a species, cattle are not threatened.

Other Comments

A Holstein's spots are like a fingerprint or snowflake. No two cows have exactly the same pattern of spots. (Schmitt 1995) (Schmitt, August 1995)

Zebu cattle, which originated in India, are sometimes known as a separate species, Bos indicus. However, current taxonomy recognizes zebu cattle as only a type of Bos taurus. Zebu cattle are characterized by a hump over the shoulder, drooping ears, and large dewlaps. They are well-adapted to arid, tropical climates and are especially resistant to the effects of heat, parasitic insects, and ticks. (Nowak, 1997)


Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.

Jessica Ng (author), University of Toronto.



Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map


living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map


living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

causes or carries domestic animal disease

either directly causes, or indirectly transmits, a disease to a domestic animal


Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


having a worldwide distribution. Found on all continents (except maybe Antarctica) and in all biogeographic provinces; or in all the major oceans (Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


a substance used for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


union of egg and spermatozoan


an animal that mainly eats leaves.


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body


referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

World Map


having more than one female as a mate at one time

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

sexual ornamentation

one of the sexes (usually males) has special physical structures used in courting the other sex or fighting the same sex. For example: antlers, elongated tails, special spurs.


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


uses sight to communicate


reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year


1999-2000. "" (On-line). Accessed October 6th, 2000 at

Brown, J. March 1996. "Bugs In The News" (On-line). Accessed November 22, 2000 at

Hinshaw, D. 1993. Cattle. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, Inc.

Huffman, B. January 1st, 2000. "Artiodactyla" (On-line). Accessed November 22, 2000 at

Johnson, P. 1999. "Whole E Cow" (On-line). Accessed October 6th, 2000 at

Nowak, R. 1997. Walker's Mammals of the World 5.1. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press. Accessed August 03, 2003 at

Rath, S. 1998. The Complete Cow. Vancouver, B.C: Raincoast Book.

Reprogen, 1997. "Domestic Cattle" (On-line). Accessed October 6th, 2000 at

Schmitt, D. August 1995. "Cow Facts" (On-line). Accessed December 15th, 2000. at

Walker, E., F. Warnick, S. Hamlet, K. Lange, H. Uible. 1975. Mammals Of The World. London: THe Johns Hopkins University Press.