There Might Not Be Any Wild Horses Left on Earth

SCIENCE

Once thought to be the world’s only remaining wild horses, a new study shows Przewalski’s horses have domestic ancestors. (National Geographic)

What is domestication? Use our resources to find out.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

Przewalski’s horses, like this one at the Orenburg Nature Reserve, Russia, are feral—not wild.
Photograph by Press Service of the President of the Russian Federation, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-4.0

Discussion Ideas

  • New genetic research has revealed that Przewalski’s horses are feral, not wild. What is the difference?

 

  • The research traces the genetics of Przewalski’s horses to horses domesticated by the ancient Botai culture of Central Asia. Why do you think the Botai domesticated horses?
    • Truly wild horses surrounded the Botai in their home on the Eurasian steppe between 3700-3100 BCE. Horses, as part of the natural ecosystem, became a natural resource for the Botai.
      • Horses may have been used for transportation and trade.
      • Horses may have been used in warfare.
      • Horses may have been used as draft animals.
      • Horse milk and meat may have provided a source of nutritious food for the Botai.
      • Horse skin (leather) may have been used for clothing and other material.
      • Horse bones may have been used for tools and weapons.
      • Horses may have been ritually important to the spirituality and culture of the Botai.

 

  • The Botai were indigenous to what is now northern Kazakhstan. What is the species range of Przewalski’s horses today?
    • Trick question! Przewalski’s horses, an endangered species, were extinct in the wild until reintroduction programs were undertaken in the 1990s. The original species range of Przewalski’s horses was the Central Asian steppe, where the Botai domesticated their ancestors thousands of years ago.
    • Today, Przewalski’s horses have been reintroduced to conservation areas in Mongolia and Russia. A population of Przewalski’s horses was also successfully introduced to the isolated, radioactive exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine and Belarus. Read more about that here.

 

  • Where are other feral horse populations?
    • All over! Horses are hardy introduced species that have colonized parts of all populated continents. Here are just a few populations.
      • Australia. The Northern Territory of Australia has the largest feral horse population in the world. These “brumbies” are descended from herds imported by European and South African settlers. Learn more about the growing brumby population here.
      • Western North America. Mustangs are the descendants from horses introduced by Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century. Learn more about these “spirits of the West” here.
      • barrier islands off eastern North America. Feral populations exist from Nova Scotia, Canada, to the U.S. state of Georgia. Ancestors probably came with the first European settlers to the region. Learn more about these “wild ponies” here.
      • Danube delta, Romania. Unlike most feral horse populations, which are descended from riding horses, these horses are at least partly descended from large draft animals.
      • Namib desert, Namibia. The Namib desert horse is likely descended from World War I cavalry horses.
      • Portugal. Portugal supports two distinct populations of feral horses. Sorraia are found in the southern plains, while Garrano are found in the northern mountainous areas. Both breeds also exist in pockets throughout Europe.
      • Japan. The Misaki horse is a small breed descended from Asian animals imported during the 6th century CE.
      • New Zealand. Horses were introduced to New Zealand in 1814, and the islands’ feral Kaimanawa horses are descended from horses released less than 100 years later.
      • Bosnia and Herzegovina. Horses released by their owners in the 1950s established a small feral population in the foothills of Cincar mountain.
      • Assam, India. A population of feral horses is descended from horses that escaped military camps during World War II.
      • Ethiopia. A tiny population of feral horses lives on the table mountain of Kundudo.

 

TEACHERS TOOLKIT

Nat Geo: How DNA Proved Wild Horses No Longer Exist

Science: Ancient DNA upends the horse family tree

Nat Geo: What is domestication?

Nat Geo: Animals Run Wild in Chernobyl

(extra credit!) Science: Ancient genomes revisit the ancestry of domestic and Przewalski’s horses

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