Is the kouprey a species?

The kouprey is a very elusive wild bovid that is said to roam the Southeast Asian jungle. It was only discovered by outsiders at the beginning of the last century, but it has seldom been seen since and there are concerns that it may, in fact, already be extinct. (It is currently listed on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species). As if that wasn’t bad enough, there is now a vigorous debate about whether the kouprey is — or was — in fact, a separate species at all, or merely some type of feral hybrid.

A report published some months ago in the Journal of Zoology showed that a comparison of mitochondrial DNA obtained from several banteng revealed some homology — similarity — with a previously published DNA sequence from a kouprey. ((Galbreath et al., 2006. J. Zool. 270:561)) The banteng is another bovid that has to some degree been domesticated, but can also still be found in the wild in several Southeast Asian countries.  Based on their analysis, the authors concluded that the kouprey is more than likely just a hybrid originating from crosses between zebu cattle and the banteng. Now, some might argue that it is pretty bold to reach such a profound conclusion based on a very small sample size, and not surprisingly some have indeed so argued. They have pointed out that anatomical and even DNA evidence from their own studies did not support stripping the kouprey of its species status. ((Grigson, 2007. J Zool. 271:239; Hassanin and Robiquet, 2007. J. Zool. 271:246)) An alternative explanation might simply be that there has been introgression of DNA from one species into the other by occasional matings. And there is ample evidence that this has happened in other species. Cattle DNA is commonly found in the American bison, for example, because of past attempts by cattle breeders to generate what they thought would be more viable bison-cattle hybrids. ((Rasmussen et al., 2005. Mol. Reprod. Dev. 70:228))

What is clearly needed to settle the matter is additional analysis of nuclear DNA obtained from more than one kouprey. But if the animal has, indeed, already disappeared, that may prove to be difficult. ((Contributed by Michael Kubisch))

5 Replies to “Is the kouprey a species?”

  1. In the age of genome analyses I think it would be difficult to convince anyone of the status of a species just by looking at it. Aside from Jeremy’s valid point that so few of the these animals have ever been seen or studied. But since the time and money required to sequence whole genomes is dropping so rapidly, it might soon be feasible to sequence even genomes of species that presently wouldn’t be considered a high priority – such as that of the kouprey. If one had nuclear DNA, that is…..

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