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Photo: Highland cow
Feral cattle that have lived for more than 100 years on Chirikof Island, which lies about 60 miles southwest of Alaska's Kodiak Island, are genetically distinct from commercial breeds raised in the U.S., although they are close cousins of highland cattle in the United Kingdom. Photo courtesy of Baylham House Rare Breeds Farm.

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Feral Cattle Isolated and Genetically Distinct

By Laura McGinnis
September 9, 2008

Feral cattle on Alaska's Chirikof Island are genetically distinct from commercial breeds raised in the United States. That's the conclusion of Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists studying the genetic diversity of these hardy animals.

Treeless, desolate and cold, Chirikof Island lies about 60 miles southwest of Alaska's Kodiak Island. For more than 100 years, the island has been home to a herd of feral cattle whose origin is unknown.

To assess the genetic diversity of the island's herd, Michael D. MacNeil, a geneticist at the ARS Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory in Miles City, Mont., worked with Matt Cronin of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF). They collected blood and tissue samples from 21 cattle and compared DNA from these samples with that of several North American commercial breeds, obtained from breeders and the ARS National Animal Germplasm Program (NAGP) in Fort Collins, Colo.

The scientists then collaborated with colleagues at Colorado State University to analyze the samples. They determined that Chirikof cattle had a relatively small degree of genetic relatedness with other breeds.

A related study showed that the Chirikof cattle genes were comparatively similar to those of Siberian Yakut cattle. Yakut are small, stocky and extremely hardy, but their genetic material is increasingly limited. The researchers concluded that the hardy Chirikof cattle and their genetic samples are unique and may have benefits for the cattle industry.

Although the ARS studies did not include analysis of the effects of the cattle's unique genes, they may relate to characteristics--such as cold hardiness or adaptability to specific forages--that would be valuable to cattle breeders and producers.

Read more about the research in the September 2008 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is a scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.