This week, a Holstein by the name of Knickers captured the heart of the Internet by standing horns and shoulders above a herd of cattle on a farm in Australia.
Which is to say, Knickers is big. But also that his bigness is relative to whatever he is being compared to.
“This story needs some perspective,” said Aniek Bouwman, an expert in animal breeding and genomics at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
For starters, she said, it’s important to note that Knickers is not a cow but a steer, and that males are typically quite a bit larger than females. (Note: Only females that have had at least one calf are referred to as “cows” in cattle circles.) But his breed is also important, Bouwman said.
Male Holsteins tend to top out at just under 6 feet in height, while other breeds, like the wagyu cattle that surround Knickers in the now-famous photos of him, usually come in under 4.5 feet. In other words, Knickers is a large specimen, but he looks larger because he’s standing among a herd of Danny DeVitos, not a herd of Arnold Schwarzeneggers.
Age is also a factor. Knickers is seven years old, which is rather long in the tooth for a steer. The animals with which he was pictured are all around one year old, his owner told the New York Times.
“Steers are usually destined for slaughter by the age of three,” said Craig Hickman, a dairy farmer in Ashburton, New Zealand, who added that nearly everyone he knows has been sending him reports about Knickers. “So at seven, he’s had time to pack on an awful lot of weight.”
In fact, Knickers’ extreme proportions may have been something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. After a few years of growth, the animal had become too large to put through a processing facility, according to his owner, Geoff Pearson.
Age and breed aside, Knickers does seem to have something a little extra going on. Which is interesting, Pearson said in an interview, because the steer’s parents weren’t particularly large, nor was he noticeably different at birth.
“He was just a run-of-the-mill calf that’s turned into a giant,” said Pearson, who owns a third-generation cattle farm in Myalup, a small town in Western Australia.
According to Bouwman, both gigantism and dwarfism, or exceptionally large and small individuals, have been documented in various species. She published ameta-analysis in Nature this year suggesting that the same genes regulate size across cattle, dogs and humans, which means it may well be possible for Knickers-like extremes to occur in any mammal under the right conditions.
As for whether genes are responsible for Knickers’s size, Bouwman said a DNA test would be required to say for sure.
It may also be possible that Knickers’s pituitary gland, which regulates growth, has gone haywire. This has been seen in some tadpole specimens that continue to grow as tadpoles and never undergo metamorphosis to become frogs.
Asked about Knickers, Richard Wassersug, an honorary professor and herpetologist at the University of British Columbia who studies gigantism in tadpoles, said he wouldn’t want to speculate outside of his realm of expertise. But generally speaking, he said, no growth can go on forever.
“There are clear limits on how large any terrestrial organism can be before its organ systems can no longer meet the collective needs of other organ systems and they start to fail,” he said.
Danniel, another humongous Holstein in California that was roughly the same size as Knickers, died this year from a calcium deficiency. According to news reports, Danniel consumed 100 pounds of hay, 15 pounds of grain and 100 gallons of water a day. He’d lived to be eight years old.
Meanwhile, the world’s tallest steer record is held by an Italian Chianina ox named Bellino. He’s 6-foot-7.
Knickers has shown no sign of health problems, but Pearson said he won’t be surprised if carrying all that weight catches up to the steer eventually. And while it’s been fun talking about his unusual animal to journalists from various countries in recent days, Pearson said, he’s got more pressing matters.
“Yeah, look, we run a reasonable cattle operation,” he said. “We like the exposure Knickers has gotten, but we’ve got a day-to-day operation to continue on with.”
In other words, don’t get your knickers in a bunch, people. It’s just a big steer.
Abby Ohlheiser contributed to this report.