Przewalski’s horse gave birth by artificial insemination (2013)

On July 27, 2013, a mare of the endangered Przewalski’s horse bore the first foal produced by artificial insemination.  The young female was born at the Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia.

Przewalski’s horse (photo by Tovisha M. Shears)

            Przewalski’s horse (Equus ferus) is the only truly wild horse species left in the world.  It is native to the vast open steppes of Mongolia, China and Russia.  It is smaller than domestic horses, standing about 5 feet high at the withers, and weighing 400-600 pounds at maturity.  It is stockier than domestic horses, with short legs and neck.  Coloration is generally light brown, with dark brown lower legs and dark main and tail, which is sheds annually.  It has a double set of chromosomes which prevent effective hybridization with domestic horses.  Consequently, the species has remained distinct and was never domesticated.  Occasional specimens kept in captivity were considered great treasures in ancient times. 

            The species declined throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries, owing to hunting, competition with domestic livestock and being forced into marginal arid habitats with insufficient water sources.  Collecting for zoos also damaged the populations, as the species became a prized zoo animal over the past century.  IUCN declared the species “extinct in the wild” up until 1996. 

The Mongolian steppes is the grassland habitat home of Przewalski’s horse (photo by Jyper)

            Collecting for zoos turned out to be the savior for the species.  About 1300 individuals exist in zoos around the world, with their genetics and other characteristics now carefully analyzed and monitored.  All horses in zoos share the same 14 ancestors, leading to concerns for loss of genetic diversity.  The Prague Zoo, in the Czech Republic, manages the official database on Przewalski’s horse genetics and has bred more than 200 foals since the 1950s. 

            With the success of captive breeding, populations were reintroduced into China and Mongolia started in the late 1980s.  Reintroductions have been successful, with now about 150 horses living freely in several small populations in its normal range.

A wild group of Przewalski’s horse at home in Mongolia (photo by Pierre Andre LeClercq)

            A huge new step in the recovery of the species occurred with the birth of the first foal fertilized by artificial insemination in 2013.  Artificial insemination is important because it allows pregnancies to be initiated without needing to transport adult animals across long distances.  It also allows strategic crosses between genetically dissimilar males and females, enhancing the overall genetic diversity of the captive and, eventually, wild populations. 

            Whereas artificial insemination is a standard practice for domestic horses, it required much research and practice before working for the wild Przewalski’s horse.  Females needed to be trained to allow repeated collection of urine so that both pre- and post-fertilization condition could be assessed.  Techniques also needed to be established to assure the successful collection and placement of male sperm.  The successful insemination and birth was finally achieved by horses and veterinarians at the Smithsonian’s conservation center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. 

References:

IUCN Red List.  Equus ferus ssp. Przeswalskii.  Available at:  http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/full/7961/0.  Accessed July 28, 2017.

Prague Zoo.  Return of the Przewalski’s Horse to Mongolia.  Available at:  https://www.zoopraha.cz/en/animals/we-help-them-to-survive/projects/7678-return-of-the-przewalski-s-horse-to-mongolia, Accessed July 28, 2017.

San Diego Zoo Global.  2008.  Przewalski’s Horse, Equus ferus przewalski.  Available at:  http://library.sandiegozoo.org/factsheets/przewalski_horse/equus.htm. Accessed July 28, 2017.

Shenk, Emily.  2013.  First Przewalski’s Horse Born Via Artificial Insemination.  National Geographic, August 6, 2013.  Available at:  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130805-przewalski-horse-born-artificial-insemination-animal-science/. Accessed July 28, 2017.

Williams, Paige.  2016.  The Remarkable Comeback of Przewalski’s Horse.  Smithsonian.com, December 2016.  Available at:  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/remarkable-comeback-przewalski-horse-180961142/. Accessed July 28, 2017.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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