Scientists Reconstruct A Bizarre Breed Of Cow That's Skull Was Squished Like A Bulldog

Compared to the skull of a normal cow, you can clearly see just how flat-faced the naita were.

Compared to the skull of a normal cow, you can see just how flat-faced the niata were. Kristof Veitschegger, University of Zurich

When Charles Darwin stepped off the Beagle in Argentina 180 years ago, he would have come face-to-face with a bizarre, snub-nosed cow. Bred – not unlike bulldogs – to have a flat face, the niata was a breed found only in South America.

Extinct since the early 20th century, scientists have finally taken a detailed look at this bovine oddity, using genetics and anatomical techniques to figure out what it looked like, where it fit in relation to other cattle, and whether its compressed face would have caused breathing problems. Publishing their results in Scientific Reports, the researchers hope their work can be used to save other unique animals on the brink of extinction.


When Darwin went on his now-renowned travels around South America and throughout the Pacific, he saw the niata when he explored the Argentinian Pampas and the countryside surrounding Buenos Aires. As you might expect from the curious naturalist, he wrote about the niata, asking questions about its possible origins, how they are related to other breeds, and what impact the creature’s strange anatomy had on their lifestyle.

The cow had a squished face, not unlike that of a bulldog. Jorge González, La Plata, Argentina

But until now, many of those questions have remained unanswered, largely because the creature fizzled out of existence some hundred years ago. “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,” explains co-author Marcelo Sánchez-Villagra in a statement.

The team were able to confirm one of Darwin’s long-standing predictions – the niata was indeed a true breed of cattle. This means that the distinct features of the animal are preserved over time; even without selective breeding, they’d continue to have a flat face.

A rare photo of a niata taken around 1915. Unknown/Wikimedia Commons

“We now also know that the niata was a taurine breed, unique among cattle because of its short snout and underbite – an anatomy that resulted in differences in the way some of the mechanics of feeding operated,” says co-author Dr Laura Wilson.


By studying the few rare skeletons of niata cattle that survive in museums, the team were able to analyze the anatomy of the cows. You might assume that, like the bulldog, the shortening of the face would have squished the nasal cavity and made it difficult for the cattle to breathe, but the researchers showed that this underbite did not, in fact, affect the nose region.

Why the breed went extinct in the end is still not known, but the researchers speculate that as with many other rare breeds of cattle, farmers may have simply preferred other breeds that were easier to keep and had better yields.


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