Invited review: ruminant ecology and evolution: perspectives useful to ruminant livestock research and production

J Dairy Sci. 2010 Apr;93(4):1320-34. doi: 10.3168/jds.2009-2071.


The article reviews ruminant ecology and evolution and shows insights they offer into livestock research. The first ruminants evolved about 50 million years ago and were small (<5 kg) forest-dwelling omnivores. Today there are almost 200 living ruminant species in 6 families. Wild ruminants number about 75 million, range from about 2 to more than 800 kg, and generally prefer at least some browse in their diets. Nine species have been domesticated within the last 10,000 yr. Their combined population currently numbers 3.6 billion. In contrast to wild ruminants, domestic species naturally prefer at least some grass in their diets, are of large body weight (BW; roughly from 35 to 800 kg), and, excepting reindeer, belong to one family (Bovidae). Wild ruminants thus have a comparatively rich ecological diversity and long evolutionary history. Studying them gives a broad perspective that can augment and challenge the status quo of ruminant research and production. Allometric equations, often used in ecology, relate BW to physiological measurements from several species (typically both wild and domestic). They are chiefly used to predict or explain values of physiological parameters from BW alone. Results of one such equation suggest that artificial selection has increased peak milk energy yield by 250% over its natural level. Voluntary feed intake is proportional to BW(0.9) across wild and domestic ruminant species. This proportionality suggests that physical and metabolic factors regulate intake simultaneously, not mutually exclusively as often presumed. Studying the omasum in wild species suggests it functions primarily in particle separation and retention and only secondarily in absorption and other roles. Studies on the African Serengeti show that multiple species, when grazed together, feed such that they use grasslands more completely. They support the use of mixed-species grazing systems in production agriculture. When under metabolic stress, wild species will not rebreed, but rather will extend lactation (to nourish their current offspring). This bolsters the suggestion that lactation length be extended in dairy operations. Cooperation between animal scientists and ecologists could generate more valuable insight.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Domestic
  • Animals, Wild
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Body Weight / physiology*
  • Cattle / physiology*
  • Female
  • Lactation / physiology*
  • Male
  • Ruminants / physiology*
  • Species Specificity