Published online 12 March 2001 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news010315-4


The strange case of the spiral-horned ox

We know less about some living mammals than about many dinosaurs. Will the Vietnamese spiral-horned ox, known from a few horns, become extinct before scientists see a live one?

Herding for the same fate: present-day mass deaths provide valuable insight into the past.Herding for the same fate: present-day mass deaths provide valuable insight into the past.

Many large mammals may remain to be discovered in the world's shrinkingwildernesses. More than a sixth of the 4,629 known mammal species have beendescribed since 1930, and at least 17 of these are large animals.

Southeast Asia is a particular hotspot -- several species of deer andox, familiar to indigenous peoples, went undetected by science until the 1990s-- even then, initial scientific descriptions were based on hunting trophies,rather than whole animals, alive or dead.

The Vu Qiang ox (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), for example,was first described in 1993 from trophies collected on the Vietnam-Laos border.This species has since been seen alive.

More obscure still is the spiral-horned ox (Pseudonovibosspiralis), first described in 1994 from several curved, ringed hornsfound in market stalls in Vietnam1. The horns were sodistinctive that there seemed no doubt that they belonged to a species of oxhitherto unknown to science. This creature is a living animal that no scientisthas ever consciously seen -- we know less about it than we do about manydinosaurs.

Last year some researchers declared that the spiral-horned ox was ahoax, and that the horns belonged to ordinary cattle.

Claims of forgery may now be harder to support following a re-evaluationof the spiral-horned ox record by Robert H. Timm of the University of Kansasand John H. Brandt of the Denver Museum of Natural History2.

Timm and Brandt have unearthed two sets of trophy horns in theUniversity of Kansas Natural History Museum belonging to this new species. Thehorns were thought to be from the kouprey (Bos sauveli), anotherrare species of Southeast Asian ox, unknown to science before 1937.

They were collected by a father-and-son team of big-game hunters -Richard L. Sutton and Richard L. Sutton Jr -- bagging elephants and tigers some125 kilometres north-east of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in January1929. The oxen were killed for meat and tiger-bait rather than research, andthe horns were presented to the University of Kansas in 1930.

Timm and Brandt are convinced that the distinctive horns belonged to thespiral-horned ox, even though the Suttons collected the specimens much farthersouth than the trophies that formed the basis for the 1994 scientificdescriptions.

Also Timm and Brandt draw on what they believe is the earliest referenceto both the spiral-horned ox and the kouprey in an account by Edgar Boulangier,a French civil engineer who spent six months in Cambodia in 1881.

Boulangier refers to five species of wild ox, including thekou-preii (antedating its formal description by more than half acentury) and the khting-pôs reportedto have fed on snakes, making its horns powerful talismans against snakebite.Because modern-day Khmer hunters also associate such magical powers with thespiral-horned ox, Timm and Brandt think that the animal described by Boulangieris the spiral-horned ox.

More than a century after Boulangier's account, the spiral-horned oxemerged into the light. Whether or not its rumoured properties against snakeswill protect it from the very real of habitat destruction and humandepredation long enough for scientists to see one before it becomes extinct,remains to be seen. 

  • References

    1. Peter, W. P. and Feiler, A. Hörner von einer unbekannten Bovidenart aus Vietnam (Mammalia: Ruminantia). Faun. Abh. Staatliches Mus. Tierkd. Dresden 19, 247 - 253, 1994.
    2. Robert M. Timm and John H. Brandt, Pseudonovibos spiralis (Artiodactyla: Bovidae): new information on this enigmatic South-east Asian ox, Journal of Zoology 253, 157 - 166, 2001.