For other uses, see Zebu (disambiguation).
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Clade: Synapsida
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Subfamily: Bovinae
Genus: Bos
Species: B. taurus
Subspecies: B. t. indicus
Trinomial name
Bos taurus indicus
Linnaeus, 1758
  • Bos indicus
  • Bos primigenius indicus

A zebu (/ˈzˌbj/, /ˈzb/ or /ˈzb/; Bos primigenius indicus or Bos indicus or Bos taurus indicus), sometimes known as indicine cattle or humped cattle, is a species or subspecies of domestic cattle originating in South Asia. Zebu are characterised by a fatty hump on their shoulders, a large dewlap, and sometimes drooping ears. They are well adapted to withstanding high temperatures, and are farmed throughout the tropical countries, both as pure zebu and as hybrids with taurine cattle, the other main type of domestic cattle. Zebu are used as draught oxen, dairy cattle, and beef cattle, as well as for byproducts such as hides and dung for fuel and manure. In 1999, researchers at Texas A&M University successfully cloned a zebu.[1]

Taxonomy and etymology

The scientific name of zebu cattle was originally Bos indicus, but they are now more commonly classified within the species Bos taurus as B. t. indicus, together with taurine cattle (B. t. taurus) and the extinct ancestor of both of them, the aurochs (B. t. primigenius).[2] Taurine ("European") cattle are descended from the Eurasian aurochs, while zebu are descended from the Indian aurochs. "Zebu" may be either singular or plural, but "zebus" is also an acceptable plural form. The Spanish name, cebu or cebú, is also present in a few English works.


An early representation of a zebu, on the Rampurva capital of the Pillars of Ashoka, third century BC

Zebu cattle are thought to be derived from Asian aurochs, sometimes regarded as a subspecies, B. p. namadicus[3] Wild Asian aurochs disappeared during the time of the Indus Valley Civilisation from its range in the Indus River basin and other parts of South Asia possibly due to interbreeding with domestic zebu and resultant fragmentation of wild populations due to loss of habitat.[4]

Archaeological evidence including pictures on pottery and rocks suggests that the species were present in Egypt around 2000 BC and were thought to be imported from the near east or south. Bos indicus is believed to have first appeared in sub-Saharan Africa between 700 and 1500 and was introduced to the Horn of Africa around 1000.[5]

Breeds and hybrids

Hariana breed of Zebu cattle in north India

Some 75 breeds of zebu are known, split about evenly between African breeds and South Asian ones. The major zebu cattle breeds of the world include Gyr, Kankrej and Guzerat, Indo-Brazilian, Brahman, Nelore, Ongole, Sahiwal, Red Sindhi, Butana and Kenana, Boran, Baggara, Tharparkar, Kangayam, Southern Yellow, Kedah-Kelantan, and Local Indian Dairy (LID). Kedah-Kelantan and LID originated from Malaysia. Other breeds of zebu are quite local, like the Hariana of Haryana and eastern Punjab[6] or the Rath of Alwar in eastern Rajasthan.[7]

The African sanga cattle breeds originated from hybridization of zebu with indigenous African humpless cattle; they include the Afrikaner, Red Fulani, Ankole-Watusi, and many other breeds of central and southern Africa. Sanga cattle can be distinguished from pure zebu by having smaller humps located farther forward on the animals.

Zebu market in Madagascar

Zebu were imported to Africa over many hundreds of years, and interbred with taurine cattle there. Genetic analysis of African cattle has found higher concentrations of zebu genes all along the east coast of Africa, with especially pure cattle on the island of Madagascar, either implying that the method of dispersal was cattle transported by ship or alternatively, the zebu may have reached East Africa via the coastal route (Pakistan, Iran, Southern Arabian coast) much earlier and crossed over to Madagascar. Partial resistance to rinderpest led to another increase in the frequency of zebu in Africa.

Zebu, which can tolerate extreme heat,[8] were imported into Brazil in the early 20th century and crossbred with Charolais cattle, a European taurine breed. The resulting breed, 63% Charolais and 37% zebu, is called the Canchim. It has a better meat quality than the zebu and better heat resistance than European cattle. The zebu breeds used were primarily Indo-Brazilian with some Nelore and Guzerat.

Many breeds are complex mixtures of the zebu and various taurine types, and some also have yak, gaur, or banteng genes. While zebu are the common cattle in much of Asia, the cattle of Japan, Korea, and Mongolia are taurine (although possibly domesticated separately from the other taurine cattle originating from Europe and Africa). Other species of cattle domesticated in parts of Asia include yak, gaur, banteng, and water buffalo.

Han-u is a traditional Korean taurine–zebu hybrid breed.


Zebu have humps on the shoulders, large dewlaps, and droopy ears.[9] They are adapted to the harsh environment of the tropics. Adaptations include resistance to disease and tolerance of intense heat, sun, and humidity.[10]


Zebu are generally mature enough to begin reproducing around 44 months old. This is based on the development of their bodies to withstand the strain of carrying and lactation. Early reproduction can place too much stress on the body and possibly shorten lifespans. Carrying time of the calf averages at 285 days, but varies depending on the age and nutrition of the mother. The sex of the calf may also affect the carrying time, as male calves are carried for a shorter period than females. Location, breed, body weight, and season affect the overall health of the animal and in return may also affect the carrying period.[11]


Draft zebu pulling a cart in Mumbai, India

Zebu are used as draught oxen, dairy cattle, and beef cattle, as well as for byproducts such as hides, dung for fuel and manure, and bone for knife handles and the like.

The quality of the meat is not highly regarded. In August 2007, the zebu was described as "notorious for its tough meat and poor eating quality" after imported steaks served in restaurants of two British pub chains tested positive for zebu genes.[12][13][14]

B. indicus cows commonly have low production of milk. They do not produce milk until maturation later in their lives and do not produce much, giving it solely to their calves. When B. indicus is crossed with B. taurus, production generally increases.[10]

In India, the zebu is considered to represent Nandi, the sacred bull of Shiva.


  1. "Cloning gives second chance for bull". BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation. 1999-09-03. Retrieved 2008-10-11.
  2. "Mammal Species of the World: Information on taurus". Retrieved 24 February 2015.
  3. van Vuure, Cis (2005). Retracing the Aurochs: History, Morphology and Ecology of an Extinct Wild Ox. Sofia-Moscow: Pensoft Publishers. ISBN 954-642-235-5.
  4. Rangarajan, Mahesh (2001). India's Wildlife History. Delhi, India: Permanent Black. p. 4. ISBN 978-81-7824-140-1.
  5. Marshall, Fiona (April 1989). "Rethinking the Role of Bos indicus in Sub-Sahara Africa". Current Anthropology. 30 (2). JSTOR 2743556.
  6. "Hariana — India: Haryana, eastern Punjab" page 245 In Porter, Valerie (1991) Cattle: A Handbook to the Breeds of the World Helm, London, ISBN 0-8160-2640-8
  7. "Rath — India: Alwar and eastern Rajasthan" page 246 In Porter, Valerie (1991) Cattle: A Handbook to the Breeds of the World Helm, London, ISBN 0-8160-2640-8
  8. "Food Ark - Cattle Breeds - Pictures, More From National Geographic Magazine". Ngm.nationalgeographic.com. 2013-04-25. Retrieved 2013-05-30.
  9. "Definition: Zebu". Online Medical Dictionary. Retrieved 2007-09-08.
  10. 1 2 Mukasa-Mugerwa, E. (1989-01-01). A Review of a Reproductive Performance of Female Bos Indicus (zebu) Cattle. ILRI (aka ILCA and ILRAD). ISBN 9789290530992.
  11. Mukasa-Mugerwa, E. (1989). ILCA Monograph No. 6. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: ILCA.
  12. Undercover Mothers, ITV, 2007-08-21
  13. "Wales farmers beef about tough steaks". News Wales. August 22, 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-22.
  14. "Zebu and chips, sir?". Daily Mail. August 20, 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-22.
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