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An Ultimate Ungulate Fact Sheet
Subfamily Bovinae
Cattle, spiral-horned antelope, and nilgai
The bovines represent an early offshoot of the Bovid lineage, diverging from the Aegodontids approximately 25 million years ago. Based on fossil evidence, the Bovinae appear to have arisen in Asia, with the first fossils appearing around 18.5 million years ago. Perhaps because of the cooler Eurasian climates, the modern Bovinae have attained a larger body size than any other bovid subfamily: many species weigh over 200 kg, with several tipping the scales at over 500 kg.

There is significant sexual dimorphism in this subfamily: in some species, males may weigh twice as much as females. Horns are found in the males of all species. Females of the tribe Bovini also grow horns (as do three species within the Tragelaphini), but the horns are noticeably smaller and thinner than those of males. The horns of both sexes are smooth (there are no annulations present, although in some species the horns are keeled). There are no facial or pedal glands, but a unique scent gland is found between the dewclaws of the hind feet in all members of this subfamily.

There are three traditionally recognized tribes in the family Bovinae:

  1. Bovini - bison, buffalo, and cattle
  2. Boselaphini - nilgai and chousingha
  3. Tragelaphini - spiral-horned antelope

    The 1993 discovery of the saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) has resulted in the creation of a fourth Bovine tribe (included within the Bovini by some authors):
  4. Pseudorygini - saola

Some authors recognize the Tragelaphini as a separate Bovid subfamily (Tragelaphinae), including separate tribes for the spiral-horned antelopes (Tragelaphini), nilgai (Boselaphini), and chousingha (Tetracerini), although molecular evidence does not support such a distinction.

Many bovine species have been domesticated by humans. Domestic cattle (Bos taurus) are now found worldwide and are raised for meat, leather, and milk production, as well as being used as beasts of burden. Other domesticated bovines include the water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis), yak (Bos grunniens), Bali cattle (descended from Banteng, Bos javanicus), and gayal (from gaur, Bos frontalis). Several attempts to domesticate eland (Taurotragus oryx) for milk and meat achieved small-scale success.

The Bovinae Family Tree
Branch lengths are not proportional to time
(From Hernandez-Fernandez and Vrba, 2005)


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Boselaphus tragocamelus

Tetracerus quadricornis

Tragelaphus imberbis

Tragelaphus angasii

Tragelaphus scriptus

Tragelaphus spekii

Tragelaphus eurycerus

Tragelaphus strepsiceros

Tragelaphus buxtoni

Tragelaphus derbianus

Tragelaphus oryx

Pseudoryx nghetinhensis

Syncerus caffer

Bubalus arnee

Bubalus mindorensis

Bubalus depressicornis

Bubalus quarlesi

Bos gaurus

Bos javanicus

Bos sauveli

Bos primigenius

Bos mutus

Bison bison

Bison bonasus

Click on the species above to learn more,
or jump to the Bovinae Species List
Literature Cited

Estes, R. D. 1991. The Behavior Guide to African Mammals: including hoofed mammals, carnivores, primates. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Hernandez-Fernandez, M., and E. S. Vrba. 2005. A complete estimate of the phylogenetic relationships in Ruminantia: a dated species-level supertree of the extant ruminants. Biological Review; 80: 269-302.

Kingdon, J. 1997. The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. London and New York: Academic Press, NaturalWorld.