What are Zebus?

Mary McMahon

Zebus are a strain of cattle native to Southeast Asia, and widely raised in parts of Africa. These animals have developed special adaptations which make them extremely well suited to tropical and hot environments, and these traits have sometimes been exploited through crosses with taurine cattle, the other common domesticated cattle. If you ever seen a photograph of cattle pulling a plow or cart in Southeast Asia, chances are high that those cattle were zebus.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Physically, zebus closely resemble their taurine relatives, except that they have distinctive humped shoulders and very long legs. Depending on the breed, a zebu may have one or two humps, and it may be black, brown, or cream colored, with long drooping ears. Many zebu also have formidable horns, although some have been bred to have horns of reduced size.

The zebu has more sweat glands than taurine cattle, and a heavy dewlap with a great deal of surface area for additional cooling. These cattle are well suited to draft work, and they are also used as riding and pack animals. As a general rule, the flesh and milk of zebus are inferior to that of taurine cattle, and the animals are raised as working animals, rather than as a source of food. Zebus also have extensive pest resistance which makes them very hardy.

There is some dispute over the scientific name for the zebu. Originally, they were known as Bos indicus, but since they can be crossed with taurine cattle, they are obviously not a separate species. As a result, some biologists refer to them as Bos taurus indicus, indicating that they are a subspecies, and zebu are sometimes also known as Bos primigenius indicus, especially among biologists who believe that they are closely related to the auroch, the wild forebear of the modern domesticated cow.

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These cattle have been farmed in India and Southeast Asia for centuries, and they are an important part of the working life on many farms. They have also been exported to Africa, where they do much better than taurine cattle, and zebus have also been exported to Australia and the United States, where they are crossed with taurine cattle to develop hardy beef and dairy cows which can handle hot or humid climates.

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