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Bos taurus indicus.jpg
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Subfamily: Bovinae
Genus: Bos
B. t. indicus
Trinomial name
Bos taurus indicus
  • Bos indicus

The zebu ( /ˈzb(j),ˈzb/ ; Bos indicus or Bos taurus indicus), sometimes known in the plural as indicine cattle or humped cattle, is a species or subspecies of domestic cattle originating in the Indian sub-continent. [2] Zebu are characterised by a fatty hump on their shoulders, a large dewlap, and sometimes drooping ears. They are well adapted to withstanding high temperatures, and are farmed throughout the tropical countries, both as pure zebu and as hybrids with taurine cattle, the other main type of domestic cattle. Zebu are used as draught and riding animals, dairy cattle, and beef cattle, as well as for byproducts such as hides and dung for fuel and manure. Some small breeds such as the miniature zebu are also kept as pets. In 1999, researchers at Texas A&M University successfully cloned a zebu. [3]


In some regions, such as parts of India, zebu are among the cattle that have significant religious meaning.

Taxonomy and name

The scientific name Bos indicus was introduced by Carl Linnaeus in 1758 for humped cattle in China. [1] The zebu was classified as a distinct species by Juliet Clutton-Brock in 1999, [4] [5] but as a subspecies of the domestic cattle, Bos taurus indicus, by Peter Grubb in 2005. [6] In 2011, Colin Groves and Peter Grubb classified it as a distinct species again. [7] The American Society of Mammalogists also considers it to be a species. [8]


A Pillar of Ashoka, dating to the 3rd century BCE, depicting a zebu GODL Rampurva bull in profile.jpg
A Pillar of Ashoka, dating to the 3rd century BCE, depicting a zebu
Zebu pictured on a coin of the Indo-Scythian king Azes II, late first century BC Coin of Azes II LACMA M.84.110.8 (2 of 2).jpg
Zebu pictured on a coin of the Indo-Scythian king Azes II, late first century BC

Zebu cattle are thought to be derived from the Indian aurochs Bos primigenius namadicus, a subspecies of the aurochs. [9] Wild Asian aurochs disappeared during the time of the Indus Valley civilisation from its range in the Indus River basin and other parts of the South Asian region possibly due to interbreeding with domestic zebu and resultant fragmentation of wild populations due to loss of habitat. [10] Bos primigenius namadicus was likely extinct long before 1300 AD and no remains younger than 1800 BC were ever found. [11] [12] [13]

Believed to be first bred in northwestern South Asia, between 7000 and 6000 BCE, indicine cattle is understood to have been dispersed throughout northwestern South Asia by 4000 BCE, and spread across much of South Asia by 2000 BCE. [14]

Archaeological evidence including depictions on pottery and rocks suggests that it was present in Egypt around 2000 BC and thought to be imported from the Near East or south. It is thought to have first appeared in sub-Saharan Africa after 700 AD and was introduced to the Horn of Africa around 1000. [15]

Phylogenetic analysis revealed that all the zebu Y chromosome haplotype groups are found in three different lineages: Y3A, the most predominant and cosmopolitan lineage; Y3B, only observed in West Africa; and Y3C, predominant in south and northeast India. [16]

Breeds and hybrids

Hariana breed of Zebu cattle in north India Hariana 02.JPG
Hariana breed of Zebu cattle in north India

Some 75 breeds of zebu are known, split about evenly between African breeds and Indian ones. The major zebu cattle breeds of the world include Gyr, Kankrej and Guzerat, Indo-Brazilian, Brahman, Sibi Bhagnari, White Nukra, Acchai, [17] Cholistani, Dhanni, Lohani, Nelore, Ongole, Sahiwal, Red Sindhi, Butana and Kenana, Baggara, Tharparkar, Kangayam, Southern Yellow, Kedah-Kelantan and Local Indian Dairy (LID). Kedah-Kelantan and LID originated from Malaysia. Other breeds of zebu are quite local, like the Hariana of Haryana and eastern Punjab [18] or the Rath of Alwar district in eastern Rajasthan. [19]

Zebu, which can tolerate extreme heat, [20] were imported into Brazil in the early 20th century. Their importation marked a change in cattle ranching in Brazil, where feral cattle had grazed freely on extensive pasturage, and bred without animal husbandry. Zebu were considered "ecological" since they could graze on natural grasses and their meat was lean and without chemical residues. [21]

From the 1960s onwards, Nelore which is an off breed of Ongole Cattle became the primary breed of cattle in Brazil because of its hardiness, heat-resistance, and because it thrives on poor-quality forage and breeds easily, with the calves rarely requiring human intervention to survive. Currently more than 80% of beef cattle in Brazil (approximately 167,000,000 animals) are either purebred or hybrid Ongole Cattle which is originated from Ongle region of Andhra Pradesh.

The African sanga cattle breeds originated from hybridization of zebu with indigenous African humpless cattle; they include the Afrikaner, Red Fulani cattle, Ankole-Watusi, Boran cattle and many other breeds of central and southern Africa. Sanga cattle can be distinguished from pure zebu by their having smaller humps located farther forward on the animals.

Zebu market in Madagascar Zebus de Madagascar 02.jpg
Zebu market in Madagascar

Zebu were imported to Africa over many hundreds of years, and interbred with taurine cattle there. Genetic analysis of African cattle has found higher concentrations of zebu genes all along the east coast of Africa, with especially pure cattle on the island of Madagascar, either implying that the method of dispersal was cattle transported by ship or alternatively, the zebu may have reached East Africa via the coastal route (Pakistan, Iran, Southern Arabian coast) much earlier and crossed over to Madagascar. Geneticists at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya, and in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia claim that cattle were domesticated in Africa independent of domestication in the Near East. They conclude that the southern African cattle populations derive originally from the eastern seaboard rather than from a southbound migration of the western cattle. [22] These results do not tell us whether domestication occurred first in Africa or the Near East. [23]

Partial resistance to rinderpest led to another increase in the frequency of zebu in Africa.

In the early 20th century in Brazil, Zebu were crossbred with Charolais cattle, a European taurine breed. The resulting breed, 63% Charolais and 37% zebu, is called the Canchim. It has a better meat quality than the zebu and better heat resistance than European cattle. The zebu breeds used were primarily Indo-Brazilian with some Nelore and Guzerat. Another Charolais cross-breed with Brahmans is called Australian Charbray and is recognised as a breed in some countries. Zebu are very common in much of Asia, including China, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and almost all countries in Southeast Asia. In Asia, taurine cattle are only found in the northern regions such as Japan, Korea, and Mongolia, possibly domesticated separately from the other taurine cattle originating from Europe and Africa). [24]


Female zebu in Sri Lanka Female zebu cattle.JPG
Female zebu in Sri Lanka

Zebu have humps on the shoulders, large dewlaps, and droopy ears. [25] Compared to taurine cattle, zebus are well adapted to the hot, dry environment of the tropics. Adaptations include resistance to drought and tolerance of intense heat and sunlight. [26]

As expected for a non-African breed, the zebu does not appear to have any trypanotolerance, [27] [28] as evidenced by the pattern of zebu introgression into African cattle. [27] There is a decrease up to - and rapid end at - tsetse-infested areas. [27]

Zebu is phenotypically recognized by their hump on the backside of their body, their excess skin, and their large ears. Furthermore, another important characteristic of the Zebu is that they are able to defend against parasites and diseases quite well considering the harsh environment they reside in. [29]


Zebu are generally mature enough to give birth when they are 29 months old. This is based on the development of their bodies to withstand the strain of carrying and lactation. Early reproduction can place too much stress on the body and possibly shorten lifespans. Carrying time of the calf averages at 285 days, but varies depending on the age and nutrition of the mother. The sex of the calf may also affect the carrying time, as male calves are carried for a longer period than females. Location, breed, body weight, and season affect the overall health of the animal and in return may also affect the carrying period. [26]


Studies on the natural weaning of zebu cattle have shown that the cow weans her calves over a 2-week period, but after that, she continues to show strong affiliatory behavior with her offspring and preferentially chooses them for grooming and as grazing partners for at least 4–5 years. [30]


Draft zebu pulling a cart in Mumbai, India India.Mumbai.04.jpg
Draft zebu pulling a cart in Mumbai, India

Zebu are used as draught and riding animals, beef cattle, dairy cattle, as well as for byproducts such as hides, dung for fuel and manure, and horn for knife handles and the like. Zebu, mostly miniature zebu, are kept as pets. [31] In India, the number of draft cattle in 1998 was estimated at 65.7 million head. [32] Zebu cows commonly have low production of milk. They do not produce milk until maturation later in their lives and do not produce much. When zebus are crossed with taurine cattle, milk production generally increases. [26]

Jallikattu in India is a bull taming sport radically different from European bullfighting, humans are unarmed and bulls are not killed.

Hindu tradition

Zebu are venerated within the Hindu religion of India. In the Vedic period they were a symbol of plenty. [33] :130 In later times they gradually acquired their present status. According to the Mahabharata , they are to be treated with the same respect 'as one's mother'. [34] In the middle of the first millennium, the consumption of beef began to be disfavoured by lawgivers. [33] :144 Cows appear in numerous stories from the Vedas and Puranas. The deity Krishna was brought up in a family of cowherders, and given the name Govinda (protector of the cows). Also, Shiva is traditionally said to ride on the back of a bull named Nandi.

Milk and milk products were used in Vedic rituals. [33] :130 In the postvedic period products of the cow—milk, curd, ghee, but also cow dung and urine (gomutra), or the combination of these five (panchagavya)—began to assume an increasingly important role in ritual purification and expiation. [33] :130–131

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aurochs</span> Extinct species of large cattle that inhabited Asia, Europe, and North Africa

The aurochs is an extinct cattle species, considered to be the wild ancestor of modern domestic cattle. With a shoulder height of up to 180 cm (71 in) in bulls and 155 cm (61 in) in cows, it was one of the largest herbivores in the Holocene; it had massive elongated and broad horns that reached 80 cm (31 in) in length.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Canchim</span> Breed of cattle

The Canchim is a breed of beef cattle developed in Central Brazil by crossing European Charolais cattle with Indubrazil cattle already kept in Brazil where Asian Zebu type cattle are best suited to the tropical conditions. When compared with Zebu bulls, Canchim bulls produce the same number of calves, but heavier and of superior quality. Compared to European breeds, the Canchim bull produces calves with the same weight but in larger numbers. The fast-growing progeny, from crossbred zebu cows with Canchim bulls, can be slaughtered at 18 months old from feedlots after weaning, up to 24 months old from feedlots after grazing and at 30 months from grazing on the range.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bovinae</span> Subfamily of mammals

Bovines comprise a diverse group of 10 genera of medium to large-sized ungulates, including cattle, bison, African buffalo, water buffalos, and the four-horned and spiral-horned antelopes. The evolutionary relationship between the members of the group is still debated, and their classification into loose tribes rather than formal subgroups reflects this uncertainty. General characteristics include cloven hooves and usually at least one of the sexes of a species having true horns. The largest extant bovine is the gaur.

<i>Bos</i> Genus of wild and domestic cattle

Bos is the genus of wild and domestic cattle. Bos is often divided into four subgenera: Bos, Bibos, Novibos, and Poephagus, but including these last three divisions within the genus Bos without including Bison in the genus is believed to be polyphyletic by many workers on the classification of the genus since the 1980s. The genus as traditionally defined has five extant species but this rises to eight when the domesticated varieties are counted as separate species, and 10 when the closely related genus Bison is also included. Most but not all modern breeds of domesticated cattle are believed to have originated from the extinct aurochs. Many ancient breeds are thought to have originated from other species. Zebus and taurine cattle are thought to descend from ancient Indian and Middle Eastern aurochs, respectively.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Yak</span> Long-haired domesticated bovid

The domestic yak, also known as the Tartary ox, grunting ox or hairy cattle, is a species of long-haired domesticated cattle found throughout the Himalayan region of the Indian subcontinent, the Tibetan Plateau, Gilgit-Baltistan (Kashmir), Tajikistan and as far north as Mongolia and Siberia. It is descended from the wild yak.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">American Brahman</span> American breed of indicine cattle

The Brahman is an American breed of zebuine-taurine hybrid beef cattle. It was bred in the United States from 1885 from cattle originating in India, imported at various times from the United Kingdom, from India and from Brazil. These were mainly Gir, Guzerá and Nelore stock, with some Indu-Brasil, Krishna Valley and Ongole. The Brahman has a high tolerance of heat, sunlight and humidity, and good resistance to parasites. It has been exported to many countries, particularly in the tropics; in Australia it is the most numerous breed of cattle. It has been used in the creation of numerous taurine-indicine hybrids, some of which – such as the Brangus and Brahmousin – are established as separate breeds.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nguni cattle</span> Breed of cattle

The Nguni is a cattle breed indigenous to Southern Africa. A hybrid of different Indian and later European cattle breeds, they were introduced by pastoralist tribes ancestral to modern Nguni people to Southern Africa during their migration from the North of the continent.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bovid hybrid</span> Crossbreeds in the bovid family

A bovid hybrid is the hybrid offspring of members of two different species of the bovid family. There are 143 extant species of bovid, and the widespread domestication of several species has led to an interest in hybridisation for the purpose of encouraging traits useful to humans, and to preserve declining populations. Bovid hybrids may occur naturally through undirected interbreeding, traditional pastoral practices, or may be the result of modern interventions, sometimes bringing together species from different parts of the world.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Nelore</span> Breed of cattle

Nelore or Nellore cattle originated from Ongole Cattle cattle originally brought to Brazil from India. They are named after the district of Nellore in Andhra Pradesh state in India. The Nelore has a distinct large hump over the top of the shoulder and neck. They have long legs which help them to walk in water and when grazing. The Nelore can adapt to all except very cold climates. They are very resistant to high temperatures and have natural resistance to various parasites and diseases. Brazil is the largest breeder of Nelore. Nelore have the shortest ears of most Bos indicus types. There is a naturally polled strain of the breed.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sahiwal cattle</span> Cattle breed

Sahiwal cattle is a breed of zebu cow, named after an area in the Punjab, Pakistan. The cattle is mainly found in Punjab province of Pakistan, and Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, & Rajasthan.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Australian Friesian Sahiwal</span> Dairy cattle breed

The Australian Friesian Sahiwal, is an Australian breed of dairy cattle whose development commenced in the 1960s by the Queensland Government. It is a combination of the Sahiwal, a dairy breed of Bos indicus from Pakistan and Holstein breeds, designed for the tropical regions of Australia. Cows produce approximately 3,000 litres of milk per lactation under tropical pasture conditions with a high resistance to heat, humidity, ticks and other parasites.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Australian Charbray</span> Breed of cattle

The Australian Charbray is an Australian breed of cattle derived from a cross between the French Charolais cattle and American Brahman cattle. The charbray breed was first conceived in the United States of America in the 1930s and later introduced into Australia in 1969. In Australia, Australian charbray breeders are concentrated in the tropical Northern regions of Queensland. As of 1977, the official breeder society of Charbray cattle in Australia and New Zealand is the Charbray Society of Australia Limited, responsible for recording Charbray cattle in herd books, fostering improvement, enhancement and sales of Charbray cattle.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Sanga cattle</span> Breed of cattle

Sanga cattle is the collective name for indigenous cattle of sub-Saharan Africa. They are sometimes identified as a subspecies with the scientific name Bos taurus africanus. Their history of domestication and their origins in relation to taurine cattle, zebu cattle, and native African varieties of the ancestral aurochs are a matter of debate.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Indian aurochs</span>

The Indian aurochs is an extinct aurochs subspecies that is considered the wild ancestor of the domestic zebu cattle, which is mainly found in the Indian subcontinent and has been introduced in many other parts of the world, like Africa and South America. In contrast, the domesticated taurine cattle breeds, which are native to Europe, the Near East, and other parts of the world, are descendants of the Eurasian aurochs. According to IUCN, the Indian aurochs disappeared before the 13th century AD, leaving only the Bos primigenius primigenius, whose range was by then restricted to Europe. The wild population of Indian aurochs was likely extinct millennia earlier than that; the most recent skeletal remains, from Uttar Pradesh, date from around 1,800 BC.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cattle</span> Large domesticated cloven-hooved herbivores

Cattle are large, domesticated, cloven-hooved, herbivores. They are a prominent modern member of the subfamily Bovinae and the most widespread species of the genus Bos. Adult females are referred to as cows and adult males are referred to as bulls.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ongole cattle</span> Breed of cattle

Ongole cattle are an indigenous cattle breed that originates from Prakasam District in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India. The breed derives its name from the place the breed originates from, Ongole. The Ongole breed of cattle, Bos indicus, is in great demand as it is said to possess resistance to both foot and mouth disease and mad cow disease. These cattle are commonly used in bull fights in Mexico and some parts of East Africa due to their strength and aggressiveness. They also participate in traditional bull fights in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Cattle breeders use the fighting ability of the bulls to choose the right stock for breeding in terms of purity and strength. The mascot of the 2002 National Games of India was Veera, an Ongole Bull.

Turano-Mongolian cattle are a group of taurine cattle that are found in Northern and Eastern Asia. They are morphologically and genetically distinct from the Near-Eastern group of taurine cattle, from which European cattle are descended; they may have been domesticated independently.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Uruz Project</span> Project having the goal of breeding back the extinct cattle species of aurochs

The Uruz Project had the goal of breeding back the extinct aurochs. Uruz is the old Germanic word for aurochs. The Uruz Project was initiated in 2013 by the True Nature Foundation and presented at TEDx DeExtinction, a day-long conference organised by the Long Now Foundation with the support of TED and in partnership with National Geographic Society, to showcase the prospects of bringing extinct species back to life. The de-extinction movement itself is spearheaded by the Long Now Foundation.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hariana cattle</span> Breed of cattle

Hariana or haryanvi is an Indian breed of cow native to North India, specially in the state of Haryana. They produce about 10 to 15 litres of milk a day, compared to 8.9 litres when cross-bred with Holstein Friesian cattle (HS), whereas pure HS can produce 50 litres a day, but it is not as disease-resistant in the conditions of North India.


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