Thou shalt not plow with an ox and an ass yoked together.
—Deuteronomy, xxii, 10
Few scientists today would deem strange mixtures like ox-horses and ox-donkeys possible. But for centuries scholars did claim just that, that is, they said hybrids can be produced from cattle crossed with equids. And indeed, many asserted that they themselves had seen creatures of this sort. Such animals are known by various names (see list at the bottom of this page), but perhaps the most common is jumart.
The existence of such creatures has been alleged since ancient times. A famous example is Alexander the Great’s steed Bucephalus, whose name literally meant, “ox-headed” (see image right). Many classical authors seem to have taken it for granted that Bucephalus had the body of a horse, but the head of a bull. Thus, Arrian (Anabasis, V, 18) writes that “The mark by which he was said to have been particularly distinguished, was a head like an ox, from whence he received his name Bucephalus.” As portrayed on ancient coins contemporary with the life of the animal, Bucephalus did have horns like a bull. Chares of Mytilene, an historian who attended Alexander’s court, wrote that Alexander’s father Phillip paid 13 talents for the animal, an equivalent of 312,000 sesterces in Roman money (see Gellius, Attic Nights, V, 2). This would amount to something like a million dollars in modern money, so cow-horse hybrid or not, Bucephalus must a very special animal.
So. Did cow-horse hybrids ever really exist? Viewed in an ontological light, the jumart is dubious. It dwells somewhere near the boundary between science and mythology. Perhaps creatures of this sort do not exist and have never existed. Or, then again, perhaps they did. Given available evidence, which is scanty, it seems further investigation might tip the scale either way.
The scientific story of the jumart begins in the 16th century with Conrad Gesner, the founder of modern zoology, who, in his Historiae Animalium (Liber I, De Quadrupedibus viviparis, 1551, p. 19), writes,
In the same place, he mentions a cow-horse hybrid, saying that he has
Gesner, who was Swiss himself, was a professor at the Carolinum, the precursor of the University of Zürich. He later refers to the same event (Gesner 1551, p. 106):
One source of this information was likely the physician Jakob Ruf (1505-1558), who, according to his German Wikipedia biography, lived as a young man in a cloister at Chur up to the time of the Reformation in 1526, but later lived in Zurich, where he became the leading surgeon of the city. In his De conceptu, et generatione hominis, he mentions this same birth (Ruf 1587, p. 48), and gives a brief description:
Julius Caesar Scaliger , a scholar of the same era as Gesner and Ruf, called a hybrid of this type a “hinnulus.” He said (Scaliger 1612, p. 650; see also p. 349) it
The Gabali and Arverni were two ethnic groups native to France. The former lived in the southeastern region of Aquitaine, the latter, in the Auvergne in central France.
Likewise, Giambattista della Porta, the Italian scholar, polymath and playwright, avers that “I myself saw at Ferraria [i.e., Ferrara], certain beasts in the shape of a Mule, but they had a Bull’s head, and two great knobs in the stead of horns.”
And in the early eighteenth century, Dr. Patrick Blair (c. 1680–1728), a Scottish surgeon and a Fellow of the Royal Society, informs his readers that from “a Bull and a She-Ass is procreated a certain Animal, called Joumar, as I am credibly inform’d by the Intelligent Dr. Sherard, who has often seen them in Turkey, where they are very frequent, and of great Use, as being excellent Beasts of Burthen, and of a quick Pace upon a March, a property not very incident either to Father or Mother. This Animal is a compound Mixture of both, and by being so, of a very unusual Shape” (Blair 1720, Part II, p. 310).
Indeed, eighteenth century books on horse breeding gave explicit instructions on how to breed horse-cow hybrids, as shown here:
In late eighteenth-century France belief in this equid-bovid hybrid seems to have been extremely widespread. For example, after the French Revolution the new official calendar renamed the months, and gave names taken from nature to each individual day of the year. The name of the 15th day of the new month of Messidor was Jumart. A French encyclopedia (Cours d'études encyclopédiques ou nouvelle encyclopédie élémentaire, vol. 6, p. 40), published during the revolutionary era, lists the beasts of burden as follows: “the horse, the ox, the ass, the mule, and the jumart.” Voltaire, widely considered one of France’s greatest Enlightenment writers, accepted the reality of cow-horse hybrids as much as he did that of mules (see Voltaire 1792, p. 200).
Zirkle (1935, p. 34) says this cross “was cited as an authentic instance of hybridization for well over two hundred years.” He also notes that many of the descriptions “seem to be independent eyewitness accounts from several different countries, and no one ever seems to have doubted the creature’s existence.” This last statement, however, is not entirely accurate; many people, for example Buffon (1749-1804, vol. 14, p. 398), did express doubt concerning it existence, which is not surprising, given that cattle are artiodactyls (“even-toed ungulates”) horses and asses are perisodactyls (“solid-hoofed ungulates”), that is, they belong to two separate mammalian orders.
But there were also many who adamantly embraced the reality of cow-horse hybrids (the controversy was similar to that seen in the case of cat-rabbit hybrids at the present day). Indeed, the belief was quite widespread in France. And, in his Histoire générale des animaux, even Buffon included an illustration of a jumart alongside pictures of oxen, horses, mules, donkeys and all the various other common animals:
So, then, is this animal real or imaginary? A key to resolving this controversy will, no doubt, prove to be the fact that a specimen apparently exists, which, given that it would probably be an F₁ hybrid, would be easily testable with molecular genetic techniques. Ackermann (1898, p. 74) states that there is a skeleton of a jumart in France in the collection of the Musée Fragonard d’Alfort, an anatomical museum associated with the French National College of Veterinary Medicine at Alfort (Écoles nationales vétérinaires d’Alfort), located today in a suburb of Paris. Ackermann’s assertion prompted me to explore the museum’s website, which did indeed turn out to have a page discussing jumarts, and which includes a photograph of a skull (see figure at right and high resolution image below). The following is a translation of that page (accessed Apr. 20, 2010): “Monstrosities were little studied in the early years of the Écoles Vétérinaire, but there is one exception that stirred a longstanding controversy: the jumard (or jumart or joumart). This animal,
The jumart skull mentioned in this translated text is pictured on the same webpage, which is somewhat surprising given that horse-cow hybrids today are generally considered imaginary. The skulls of mythical animals do not end up in museum collections. So either this type of hybrid has been produced, or the skull pictured is a fake or that of some other creature. Note, however, that this skull, which the Alfort Museum describes as a jumart’s, differs markedly from that of a cow, horse or ass (see pictures above, comparing these skulls). So if it is not a jumart, what is it? Here is an enlargeable image of the skull:
The French college of veterinary medicine is one of the world’s oldest. Its main branch at Alfort opened in 1766, and its museum, the Musée Fragonard, located at that branch, opened in the same year. The founder of both (as well as the original branch of the college at Lyon, which first opened its doors on January 1, 1762), the veterinary surgeon Claude Bourgelat (1712-1779), began the museum’s collection. He was a member of both the French and Prussian academies of sciences. Many veterinary colleges in other countries were founded by his students, who took the French college as their model.
Charles Bonnet, a Swiss scientist, was one of the foremost naturalists of the eighteenth century. While updating his Oeuvres d'histoire naturelle et de philosophie, an encyclopedia of natural history, he happened to read about a jumart supposedly once in Bourgelat’s possession. As a result, he writes the following (Bonnet 1779, vol. 6, pp. 349-352): “Confronted with authorities of conflicting opinion, I greatly desired to be able to make up my mind
The skull pictured above is apparently that of one of the jumarts Bourgelat claimed to have had in his possession during the years he served as director and inspector general of the school. There seems little doubt that such is the case, given that the museum website describes it as the skull of a jumart, and explicitly states that it “dates from the time of Bourgelat.” Moreover, it is well-known that Bourgelat began the collection that later became the museum’s.
In the present context, it appears significant that (1) descriptions of jumarts regularly mention that the upper jaw is much shorter than the lower (the usual distance mentioned is “an inch and a half”), and (2) that in the picture shown above, of what the museum website describes as the “skull of a jumart,” (“tête osseuse de jumard”) that the incisors in the upper jaw do, in fact, fall far short of those in the lower. This is not the case in a horse or an ass, and a cow does not have upper incisors. There seems to be no known animal with a similar mismatching of the incisors, nor one with a tooth and skull configuration like that seen in this putative jumart. In an old description of these animals, Leger (1669, p. 7) says this mismatch generally prevented the jumarts he saw from grazing, except in fields with long grass they could crop by pulling it off with their tongues. Similarly, Paul Zacchias (Zacchias 1660, p. 504, 18) mentions that a jumart belonging to Cardinal Scipione Borghese (1577-1633) died because it could not eat grass or hard food.
There is also the fact that this specimen has an obvious knob or prominence over each eye, another feature regularly mentioned in accounts of jumarts. (These knobs are better visible in the smaller of the two images of the Alfort specimen shown above, as the larger image was taken from an angle that makes it harder to see them.)
In the article quoted above, Bonnet (1779, vol. 6, pp. 351-352) includes an excerpt from Bourgelat’s letter, a section describing the anatomy of a female jumart: “Fear of altering the anatomical description of this jumart in abridgment has prompted me here to transcribe nearly word for word from M. Bourgelat’s letter. In its external appearance, this animal has a mouth or muzzle like that
Louis-Furcy Grognier (1774-1837), a member of the Academie Français and the French Society of Medicine, was a professor, and later, the director of the École nationale vétérinaire at Lyon. Like many French veterinarians of his era, Grognier believed that horse-cow hybrids exist, though he considered them rare. Thus, he says (Grognier 1841, pp. 83-84; see also Grognier 1805, p. 188), “Enlightened individuals worthy of credence claim to have seen these animals [but] most naturalists deem them imaginary. However, whatever the differences may
The encyclopedist Victor d'Azyr (1821, p. 391) concurred with Grognier’s view that hybrids of this type are rare, for he says that in his native Cantal (a little populated region in the Auvergne) he had only seen only two, though, he adds, several other people from the same region had assured him that they had seen others. Given that these animals are rare, if they exist at all, the attitude expressed by Grognier (1805, p. 194) seems reasonable enough:
In the same publication, Grognier (1805, pp. 194-195) mentions his friend and colleague, Claude Julien Bredin, who also served (from 1815 to 1835) as Director of the French School of Veterinary Medicine at Lyon, “while at Sospello [modern Sospel] in the Maritime Alps department [of southeastern France] where he was performing his duties as a veterinarian to the artillery, was shown an animal that was supposed to be the offspring of a bull and a she-ass. It was 3 feet 5 inches in height. Its body
Many French naturalists, however, who were not veterinarians held the opposite view. This school of thought seems traceable in its origins primarily to the Comte de Buffon (Histoire Naturelle, 1829, vol. 16, pp. 392-393), who tried and failed to produce a horse-cow hybrid: “On my family estate, in 1767 and subsequent years, the miller had a horse and a bull who lived in the same barn, and who
But not everyone agreed with Buffon, and many veterinarians continued to believe in horse-cow hybrids long after Buffon was dead, perhaps because reports of such animals continued to crop up. For example, the following brief notice about a horse-cow hybrid appeared on page 3, column 4, of the January 5, 1872 issue of The True Northerner, a newspaper published in Paw Paw, Michigan (access source): “The latest freak of nature is an animal at Council Bluffs [Iowa], which is half horse and half cow.” A similar notice appears on page 1, column 1, of the September 6, 1893 issue of The Yellowstone Journal, a newspaper published in Miles City, Montana (access source): “A monstrosity in the shape of a colt with a head like a calf and having but one eye and no mouth was foaled on a Fair ranch in California.”
Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, the eminent French zoologist Paul Gervais (1855, p. 154) commented that “Naturalists have accepted the opinion of Buffon, but such is not the case with veterinarians, who are far from convinced.” (Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original French.)
He went on to explain why he did not believe in jumarts himself: “Unfortunately, these singular productions have either not been described with the care they deserve, or in those cases where they have been, they are easily recognized as
And yet 14 years after Gervais’ death we find a news report of a cow calving two horse-cow hybrids. The following article originated with the Dunedin Star, a newspaper in Dunedin, New Zealand. But it was transcribed here from page 4, column 1, of the July 18, 1893 issue of the Poverty Bay Herald, newspaper published in Poverty Bay, New Zealand (Access source)"
A cow recently gave birth to a pair of singular animals. They resemble colts more than calves, although both possess rudimentary horns and hoofs of cattle, but in all other respects they seem to be young horses, having long, flowing manes and tails of colts, only these latter are unusually long and bushy. One is a male and the other a female, and both are well-developed, well-shaped animals. The mother, however, seems to know that there is something abnormal about them, and has declined to allow them natural nourishment, so that they are to be brought up by hand.
The mother is a young Jersey of unmixed breed and a valuable animal. As usual, the penny show proprietors have scented out the curiosities, and have proposed to purchase them, but the owner has declined, having a mind to watch the development of these singular offspring. The other cattle and horses on the farm alike refuse to consort with the strangers, and it has been found necessary to isolate them in a separate pasture. The colt-calves are playful little creatures, and seem to possess affectionate dispositions, coming to the bars at a whistle from the man having them in charge. Crowds from all over the country have been to see the curiosities.—Dunedin Star.
Occasional reports of such hybrids continued into the twentieth century. The following appeared on page 5, column 1, of the February 22, 1905 issue of the Keowee Courier, a South Carolina newspaper (Access source).
C. W. Hunt, of Mountain Rest, reports a curiosity, monstrosity, malformation or phenomena at his farm in the shape of a combination calf—half calf and half mule—which was born last week. Its feet are those of a mule, small and shapely, and have no sign of the calf’s cloven hoof. Its head and ears also are quite mulish, bearing a decidedly closer resemblance to a mule than a calf. The remainder of the body of the creature is that of a calf. At three days of age the little freak was alive, apparently healthy and gave every promise of growing to maturity. (See also)
The following report about a colt with a cow’s hoof appeared on page 4, column 4, of the April 25, 1908 issue of Pullman Herald, a newspaper published in Pullman, Washington (access source):
Albany, Ore., April 21.—A freak colt has been born on the farm of E. Hartsock, in Benton County, near this city. One of its front feet is a cow’s hoof. The colt is now a week old and apparently is not hampered by its strange foot. It rans about and will probably grow up.
The following report about a horse-cow appeared on page 2, column 4, of the August 3, 1901 issue of The Broad Ax, a newspaper published in Salt Lake City, Utah (access source):
Veterinarians are interested deeply in a freak cow-horse, which is in the possession of Mr. William S. Hugo of Elizabethport, N.J. At first glance the animal looks like a mare of natural size, but on approaching her hind quarters the formation of a cow is discovered in the hip bones, which are level with the backbone. She measures [~60cm] from one hip bone to the other. The mare has natural shoulders and head, but when traveling has the peculiar stride of the cow.
The animal has attracted much attention, and several circus men have endeavored to buy here. The mare can get over the ground in lively fashion, while not appearing to be going fast. In the stall the animal chews her cud, as does a cow or bull, and if watched closely many of the attributes of the bovine can be observed. When swishing flies her motion is the same as that of a cow. She can gallop, but in a clumsy fashion only.
Another report alleges a three-way horse-cow-deer hybrid (perhaps simply a horse-cow hybrid?). It appeared on page 2, column 4, of the July 9, 1910 issue of the Charlevoix County Herald, a newspaper published in East Jordan, Michigan (Access source). It reads as follows:
Ottawa—At the village of Buckingham, on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, a few miles from this city, is a horse, if such it can be called, that is only one-third horse, the other two parts being divided equally between cow and deer.
As a freak the animal probably has no equal. The normal parts are its head, eyes, teeth and one hind leg.
Its backbone is not in the center, but runs along the side of its back.
One side of the body is that of a deer, perfectly formed, with the fine close-set ribs and the delicately curved body, while the other side resembles that of a cow, very full, with big rough ribs and the hide much rougher than on the other side.
A second report about the same animal described in the article immediately above supplies some additional information. It appeared on page 2, column 4, of the March 17, 1910 issue of the Heppner Gazette, a newspaper published in Heppner, Oregon (Access source). It reads the same as the article above, but adds this paragraph:
On one of its front legs there protrudes a twin horn which measures four feet and ll inches from the tip to the base, turning up at the point and weighing about 25 pounds. The hind leg on the left side is put on backwards, so to speak, all the muscles of the leg are on the inside and the hoof points backwards.
That same year, a horse-cow in Stratford, Connecticut was mentioned on page 8, column 5, of the November 14, 1910 issue of The Bridgeport Evening Farmer, a newspaper published in Bridgeport, Connecticut (Access source). The brief notice reads as follows:
The following question from a reader appeared on page 11, column 1 of the March 1, 1911 issue of The Ranch, a monthly newsletter published in Seattle, Washington (Access source):
Question—Will you please give this space in The Ranch? I have a heifer that is somewhat of a “freak of nature,” she has a tail like a horse; but what interests me most is that she will soon freshen, and only one side of her udder is developing. What can I do to make the other side develop? A. V. R. Colby, Wash.
A horse-cow hybrid is mentioned on page 3 of the March 17, 1915 issue of Bregenzer Tagblatt, an Austro-Hungarian newspaper published in Bregenz (now in western Austria). The report reads as follows:
In the stable of the Restaurateur Werkmeister in Friedingen a calf was birthed that had a perfect horse’s head. This monstrosity was of the male sex and lived 28 hours. [Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original German.]
A donkey-cow hybrid is reported on page 3 of the June 4, 1917 issue of Pilsner Tagblatt, an Austro-Hungarian newspaper published in Pilsen (now in the Czech Republic. The brief notice reads as follows:
A Monstrosity. In Neuhof near Buchau a cow owned by a farmer named Al. Huml birthed a female calf with the hind legs and tail of an ass. The birth of this vigorous monstrosity, which is still alive, created a great sensation. [Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original German.]
Another horse-cow hybrid is mentioned on page 6 of the October 28, 1917 issue of Grazer Vorortezeitung, an Austro-Hungarian newspaper published in Graz in what is now Austria. The brief report reads as follows:
Half Calf Half Horse. After a 44 week pregnancy, a cow belonging to Farmer Alexander Hügel in Neudorf gave birth to a calf, with the rear legs and tail of a horse. The delivery of this highly developed freak, which is still alive, was quite difficult. [Note: The gestation period of a cow is about 39 weeks, that of a horse 48 weeks or more, so the length of gestation here is intermediate between that of horse and cow. Hybrids typically have a gestation period intermediate in length between those of their parents. Translated by E. M. McCarthy. Original German.]
Even more recently, an animal in an English news report appears to be a horse-cow hybrid. It belonged to Frans Buitelaar, a Boston, UK meat dealer back in the 60s or 70s, and is pictured in an online article in the Boston Standard. According to the brief comments accompanying the picture, a local vet was consulted at the time and he pronounced the animal “bovine.” However, might it also have been equine? The Standard’s image is shown below, along with those of a horse and a cow for comparison. Traits visible in the picture that seem consistent with the idea that this animal has equine inheritance are: (1) its very horse-like tail; (2) the rounded hip (i.e., croup) region, which does not at all have the pointed shape characteristic of a cow; (3) absence of an udder; (4) saddle in the back, unlike the straight back of a cow; (5) long, thick horse-like neck.
One might, of course, simply suppose that the image is a fake. However, although the former owner Frans Buitelaar is now deceased, his son, Adam Buitelaar, when contacted, said he does remember seeing the living animal and confirmed it did look like the creature shown in the image above. And, moreover, he said it did have a horse’s tail. He also said that it was a female, which would make the fact that it lacked an udder very peculiar indeed—if it were a pure cow.
It can be seen that the Boston animal differs substantially from the creature shown in Houël’s eighteenth-century illustration. Possibly, this discrepancy simply reflects a high order of variability in the offspring from this cross, as is the case with certain other distant hybrids. The structure of the Boston animal is, however, consistent with the brief descriptions of the Buchau, Neudorf and Colby animals in that the equine similarity is primarily restricted to the hindquarters and tail. The same can be seen in an online image of an animal for which the license owner has not yet granted usage permissions. On the other hand, the Mountain Rest, Elizabethport and Friedingen animals were reported to have the reverse configuration, that is, they were described as horse-like anteriorly and cow-like posteriorly. And then, some of the early French cases and the New Zealand animal, from their descriptions, seem to have been of an equine character overall. The basis of this extreme variability in what must be F₁ hybrids, if they are hybrids at all, is unknown. In closer crosses, F₁ hybrids typically show very little variability.
As usual, in the case of any hybrid of disputed status, I leave open the question of whether horse-cow hybrids exist. Reservation of judgment on such issues is a matter of strict policy here on this website. However, it is clear that genetic testing of the alleged jumart skull (pictured above) held in the Musée Fragonard’s collection would resolve this issue, at least with respect to that particular specimen (such testing would be straightforward given that it is presumably an F₁ hybrid, if it is a hybrid at all). Such a study could have potentially important results, in that any definite verification that this specimen is derived from hybridization between an equid and a bovid would demonstrate that the limits of mammalian hybridization extend far beyond what many scientists currently believe possible.
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