|A pair of przewalski's wild horses roaming a field.|
|Subspecies||E. f. przewalskii|
|Equus ferus przewalskii|
Common names for this equine include Asian wild horse, Przewalski's wild horse, Mongolian wild horse, and takhi. Historical but obsolete names include true tarpan and Mongolian tarpan. The horse is named after the Russian geographer and explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky.
Most "wild" horses today, such as the American Mustang or the Australian Brumby, are actually feral horses descended from domesticated animals that escaped and adapted to life in the wild. In contrast, Przewalski's horse has never been domesticated and remains the only truly wild horse in the world today. Przewalski's horse is one of three known subspecies of Equus ferus, the others being the domesticated horse Equus ferus caballus, and the extinct tarpan Equus ferus ferus. There are still a number of other wild equines, including three species of zebra and various subspecies of the African wild ass, onager (including the Mongolian wild ass), and kiang.
Many believe that the Przewalski horse is the closest relative to the domestic horse. DNA sequencing has been done to test whether or not the Przewalski horse is the primogenitor of domestic horses, but it was found that they are not. If Przewalski horses were indeed the ancestors of domesticated horses, those sequences, too would have been found within the Przewalski horse sequences. The DNA was then tested the other way as well; domestic horse sequences were checked for Przewalski horse sequences, and were found to contain none. This puts to rest the theory that Przewalski horses were derived from domestic horses. Studies of the DNA diversity within the Przewalski horses have been done to see how successful their reintroduction into the wild may be. Studies have shown through multidimensional scaling analyses that tight grouping occurs within most horse breeds, close grouping between related breeds, and far less grouping between mixed breeds. The Przewalski horse and the domesticated horse showed a close relationship through pairwise genetic distance and multidimensional scaling analyses showing that the Przewalski horse is very closely related to the domesticated horse.
The Przewalski's horse was described in 1881 by L. S. Poliakov. The taxonomic position of Przewalski's horse has always been problematic and no consensus exists whether it is a full species (Equus przewalskii), a subspecies of the wild horse(Equus ferus przewalskii), or even a sub-population of the domestic horse (Equus ferus caballus). Studies using DNA have been inconclusive, in part due to crossing domestic horses into the Przewalski's horse as well as the limited genetic variation present in the founder population of the Przewalski's horse. A 2009 molecular study using ancient DNA recovered from archaeological finds like bones and teeth places the Przewalski's horse in the middle of the domesticated horses, but 2011 mitochondrial DNA analysis suggests that the Przewalski and the modern domestic horse diverged some 160,000 years ago. An analysis based on whole genome sequencing and calibration with DNA from old horse bones gave a divergence date of 38–72 thousand years ago. The karyotype of the domestic horse differs from that of Przewalski’s horse by an extra chromosome pair either because of the ﬁssion of domestic horse chromosome 5 in Przewalski’s horse or fusion of Przewalski’s horse chromosomes 23 and 24 in the domestic horse. In comparison, the chromosomal differences between domestic horses and zebras include numerous translocations, fusions, and inversions. Przewalski’s horse is known to have the highest diploid chromosome number among all equine species. Przewalski’s horse can interbreed with the domestic horse and produce fertile offspring (65 chromosomes)
Every Przewalski horse presently living is descended from 9 of the 13 horses captured in 1945. Two of these were hybrids, one sired from a wild horse stallion and domestic mare and the other from a wild stallion and a tarpan mare. These 13 horses were descended in turn from approximately 15 captured around 1900. A cooperative venture between the Zoological Society of London and Mongolian scientists has resulted in successful reintroduction of these horses from zoos into their natural habitat in Mongolia; and as of 2011 there is an estimated free-ranging population of over 300 in the wild. From a population of 13 horses held in captivity in 1945, the total number by the early 1990s was over 1,500.
A population introduced in 1998 now exists in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone protected from the interference by humans.
Przewalski females are able to give birth at the age of three and have a gestation period of about 11 to 12 months. Their reproduction process is seasonal and in Mongolia the season is towards the end of either May, June, or July. Mating stallions do not start looking for mating partners until the age of five. Instinctively, the stallion will look to create his own group of mares or else wander until he finds a group with its own leader. If the stallion finds a group of mares with its own leader, the stallion will usually fight the other leader stallion of the group. The mares will adjust and follow the victor. After birth, the foal can stand almost immediately (only taking about an hour or so) and can walk on its own. The foals drink milk from the mother mare.
Przewalski's horse is stockily built in comparison to domesticated horses, with shorter legs. Typical height is about 12–14 hands (48–56 inches, 122–142 cm), length is about 2.1 m (6 ft 11 in). They weigh around 300 kilograms (660 lb). The coat is generally dun in colour with pangaré features, varying from dark brown around the mane (which stands erect) to pale brown on the flanks and yellowish-white on the belly and around the muzzle. The legs of Przewalski's horse are often faintly striped, also typical of primitive markings. The tail is about 90 cm (35.43 in) long, with a longer dock and shorter hair than seen in domesticated horses.
The hooves of the Przewalski's horse are longer in the back and have significantly thicker sole horn than feral horses. This is beneficial as it improves the performance of the hooves.
The Przewalski's horse has 66 chromosomes, compared to 64 in all other horse species.
In the wild, Przewalski's horses live in small, permanent family groups consisting of one adult stallion, one to three mares, and their common offspring. Offspring stay in the family group until they are no longer dependent, usually at two or three years old. Bachelor stallions, and sometimes old stallions, join bachelor groups. Family groups can join together to form a herd that moves together.
The patterns of their daily lives exhibit horse behaviour similar to that of feral horseherds. Stallions herd, drive and defend all members of their family, while the mare often displays leadership in the family. Stallions and mares stay with their preferred partner for years. While behavioural synchronisation is high among mares, stallions other than the main harem stallion are generally less stable in this respect.
Horses maintain visual contact with their family and herd at all times and have a host of ways to communicate with one another, including vocalisations, scent marking, and a wide range of visual and tactile signals. Each kick, groom, tilt of the ear, or other contact with another horse is a means of communicating. This constant communication leads to complex social behaviours among Przewalski's horses.
The Przewalski horse's diet consists mostly of vegetation. There are many plant species in a typical Przewalski horse environment including: Elymus repens, Carex spp., Fabaceae and Asteraceae. While the horses eat a variety of different plant species, they tend to favour one species during a specific time of the year. In other words, the Przewalski horses have seasonal food preferences. In the springtime, Przewalski horses favor Elymus repens, Corynephorus canescens, Festuca valesiaca and Chenopodium album. In early summer they favor Dactylis glomerata and Trifolium and in late summer, they gravitate towards Elymus repens and Vicia cracca. In winter, for example, the horses eat Salix spp., Pyrus communis, Malus sylvatica, Pinus sylvestris, Rosa spp., and Alnus spp. Additionally, Przewalski horses may dig for Festuca spp., Bromus inermis and Elymus repens that grow beneath the ice and snow. The Przewalski horse’s winter diet is very similar to the diet of domestic horses. Studies have suggested that in the wintertime, Przewalski horses experience hypodermis. Hypodermis is a condition in which one’s metabolic rate slows down. This means that in the winter time, Przewalski horse’s process their food more slowly than they do during other times of the year. Looking at the species diet overall, however, Przewalski horses most often eat Elymus repens, Trifolium pratense, Vicia cracca, Poa trivialis, Dactylis glomerata and Bromus inermis.
Water, along with grassy vegetation, is another major component of the Przewalski horse's diet. A study, conducted by K.M. Scheibe and a team of scientists, documented the water consumption of 12 female Przewalski horses that were living in a semireserve over a course of 17 months. Their results show that, on average, a Przewalski horse drinks between 2.4 and 8.3 liters of water a day, which is less than the amount of water a domestic horse drinks daily. In fact, the Przewalski horse that consumed the most water in the study drank on average 8.6 liters of water a day. This almost equals the lowest amount of water consumption for a domestic horse which is 8.4 liters a day.
In the 15th century, Johann Schiltberger recorded one of the first European sightings of the horses in the journal of his trip to Mongolia as a prisoner of the Mongol Khan. The horse is named after the Russian colonel Nikolai Przhevalsky (1839–1888) (the name is of Polish origin and "Przewalski" is the Polish spelling). He was the explorer and naturalist who first described the horse in 1881, after having gone on an expedition to find it, based on rumors of its existence. Many of these horses were captured around 1900 by Carl Hagenbeck and placed in zoos. As noted above, about twelve to fifteen reproduced and formed today's population.
The native population declined in the 20th century due to a combination of factors, with the wild population in Mongolia dying out in the 1960s. The last herd was sighted in 1967 and the last individual horse in 1969. Expeditions after this failed to locate any horses, and the species had been designated "extinct in the wild" for over 30 years.
After 1945 only two captive populations in zoos remained, in Munich and in Prague. The most valuable group, in Askania Nova, Ukraine, was shot by German soldiers during World War II occupation, and the group in the United States had died out. Competition with livestock, hunting, capture of foals for zoological collections, military activities, and harsh winters recorded in 1945, 1948 and 1956 are considered to be the main causes of the decline in the Przewalski's horse population. By the end of the 1950s, only 12 individual Przewalski's horses were left in the world.
In 1977, the Foundation for the Preservation and Protection of the Przewalski horse was founded in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, by Jan and Inge Bouman. The Foundation started a program of exchange between captive populations in zoos throughout the world to reduce inbreeding, and later began a breeding program of its own. As a result of such efforts, the extant herd has retained a far greater genetic diversity than its genetic bottleneck made likely.
Since 1986, Chinese researchers have bred Prezewalski's horses in captivity, with the program seeing over twenty years of success.
In 1992, sixteen horses were released into the wild in Mongolia, followed by additional animals later on. One of the areas to which they were reintroduced became Khustain Nuruu National Park in 1998. Another reintroduction site is Great Gobi B Strictly Protected Area, located at the fringes of the Gobi desert. Lastly, in 2004 and 2005, 22 horses were released by the Association Takh to a third reintroduction site in the buffer zone of the Khar Us Nuur National Park, in the northern edge of the Gobi ecoregion. In the winter of 2009-2010, one of the worst "dzud" or snowy winter conditions ever hit Mongolia. The population of the Prezewalski's horse in the Great Gobi B SPA was drastically affected, providing clear evidence of the risks associated with reintroducing small and sequestered species in unpredictable and unfamiliar environments.
Since 2011, Prague Zoo has transported twelve horses to Mongolia in three rounds, in cooperation with partners (Czech Air Force, European Breeding Programme for Przewalski´s Horses, Association pour de cheval du Przewalski : Takh, Czech Development Agency, Czech Embassy in Mongolia and others) and it plans to continue to return horses to the wild in future. In the framework of the project Return of the Wild Horses it sustains its activities by supporting local inhabitants. The Zoo has the longest uninterrupted history of breeding of Przewalski's horses in the world and keeps the studbook of this species.o
The reintroduced horses successfully reproduced, and the status of the animal was changed from "extinct in the wild" to "endangered" in 2005. On the IUCN Red List, they were reclassified from "extinct in the wild" to "critically endangered" after a reassessment in 2008 and from "critically endangered" to "endangered" after a 2011 reassessment.
While dozens of zoos worldwide have Przewalski's horses in small numbers, there are also specialized reserves dedicated primarily to the species. The world's largest captive breeding program for Przewalski's horses is at the Askania Nova preserve in Ukraine. Several dozen Przewalski's horses were also released in the area evacuated after the Chernobyl accident, which now serves as a deserted de facto nature reserve. In Chernobyl, the population reproduced at a high rate, reaching up to 200 individuals until poachers decreased their number to just 60 in recent years. As of 2011, it was estimated that only 30–40 individuals remained. An intensely researched population of free-ranging animals was also introduced to the Hortobágy National Park puszta in Hungary; data on social structure, behaviour and diseases gathered from these animals is used to improve the Mongolian conservation effort.
Several American zoos also collaborated in breeding Equus ferus przewalskii from 1979 to 1982. Recent advances in equine reproductive science in the United States also have potential to further preserve and expand the gene pool. In October 2007, scientists at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo successfully reversed a vasectomy on a Przewalski's horse — the first operation of its kind on this species and possibly the first ever on any endangered species. While normally a vasectomy may be performed on an endangered animal under limited circumstances, particularly if an individual has already produced many offspring and its genes are overrepresented in the population, scientists realized the animal in question was one of the most genetically valuable Przewalski's horses in the North American breeding program. The first birth by artificial insemination occurred on July 27, 2013 at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.
Le Villaret, located in the Cevennes National Park in southern France and run by the Association Takh, is a breeding site for Przewalski's horses that was created to allow the free expression of natural Przewalski's horse behaviors. Eleven zoo-born horses were brought to Le Villaret in 1993. Horses born there are adapted to life in the wild: they are free to choose their own mates and must forage on their own. Such a unique breeding site was necessary to produce the individuals that were reintroduced to Mongolia in 2004 and 2005. In 2012 there were 39 individuals at Le Villaret.
The Przewalski's Horse Reintroduction Project of China was initiated in 1985 when 11 wild horses were imported from overseas. After more than two decades of effort, the Xinjiang Wild Horse Breeding Centre has bred a large number of the horses, of which 55 were released into the Kalamely Mountain area. The animals quickly adapted to their new environment. In 1988, six foals were born and survived, and by 2001 there were over 100 horses at the centre. As of 2013, the center hosted 127 horses divided into 13 breeding herds and three bachelor herds.
Reintroductions organized by western European countries started in 1990s. These were later stopped, mostly for financial reasons. Prague Zoo started a new cycle of transporting horses to the wild, which, with the support of public and many strategic partners, continues today.