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

October 1
Yosemite National Park Created (1890)
October 2
San Diego Zoo Founded (1916)
October 3
James Herriot, English Veterinarian, Born (1916)
October 4
Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, Patron Saint of Ecology
October 5
Catherine Cooper Hopley, British Herpetologist, Born (1817)
October 6
Mad Hatter’s Day
October 7
Henry A. Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, Born (1888)
October 8
World Octopus Day
October 9
Vajont Dam Disaster (1963)
October 10
Dnieper Dam Began Operation (1932)
October 11
Big Cypress and Big Thicket National Preserves Created (1974)
October 12
William Laurance, Tropical Conservationist, Born (1957)
October 13
International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction
October 14
Timpanogos Cave National Monument Created (1922)
October 15
Isabella Bird, Pioneering Eco-traveler, Born (1831)
October 16
World Food Day
October 17
Oliver Rackham born (1939)
October 18
Clean Water Act established (1972)
October 19
Research Vessel Albatross Launched (1882)
October 20
OPEC Oil Embargo (1973)
October 21
“Ding” Darling born (1876)
October 22
Wombat Day
October 23
Cumberland Island National Seashore established (1972)
October 24
Antoni von Leeuwenhoek born (1632)
October 25
Secretary of the Interior Convicted in Teapot Dome Scandal (1929)
October 26
Erie Canal Opens (1825)
October 27
Golden Gate and Gateway National Recreation Areas Created (1972)
October 28
Henry Mosby, Wild Turkey Biologist, Born (1913)
October 28
First Ticker-tape Parade Held (1886)
October 29
Stanley Park, Vancouver, Dedicated (1889)
October 30
UNESCO Designates 9 Natural World Heritage Sites (1981)
October 31
Lincoln Highway Dedicated (1913)
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