While the majority of horses today are domesticated, others remain wild. Feral horses are the offspring of once-tame animals that have roamed the countryside for generations. Groups of these horses can be found all over the world. But do you know there is only one true wild horse?
Mongolia’s only truly wild horse is the endangered Przewalski’s horse. While other horses do live in the wild, they are just considered feral since they have descended from domesticated horses.
The Last Surviving Wild Horse
Meet the Przewalski’s horse, they are also known as a P-horse, an equine long thought to be the last truly wild horse. According to a genetic study published in 2018, the breed is a direct descendant of the first domesticated horses.
The Przewalski’s horse is a subspecies of Equus ferus and is thought to be the closest relative of the domestic horse. It is related to zebras and wild asses, which are members of the Equidae family. The split between Przewalski’s horse species and domestic horses occurred between 120,000 and 240,000 years ago.
Colonel Nikolai Przhevalsky, a Russian geographer and explorer, rediscovered the species for European science in 1878. He’d gotten the skin and skull of a Przewalski’s horse from a hunter near today’s China-Mongolia border and later traveled to see them in the wild.
Previous evidence includes rock and tool engravings dating back to 20,000 BCE and a written account of the horses written around 900 CE by the Tibetan monk Bodowa. (Source: National Geographic)
The Horses from the Great Genghis Khan
While Westerners may be familiar with the species such as the Przewalski’s horse or P-Horse, it is also known as the Asian wild horse or Mongolian wild horse, Dzungarian, and Takhi. Takhi is Mongolian for spirits or holy horses. Legends surround the animals in their native lands, from messengers to gods to Genghis Khan and his army riding them to conquer the world. (Source: National Geographic)
The Przewalski’s Horse was on the Verge of Extinction
Through the 1950s, only a few captive Przewalski horses survived, and the last sighting of a wild individual occurred in 1969. The species was declared extinct in the wild in the 1960s until reintroduction programs began.
There are approximately 400 horses in the wild, with an adult population of 178 horses. The species’ status has improved from extinct in the wild to critically endangered to a still-precarious endangered. (Source: National Geographic)
Is There a Cloned Przewalski Horse?
Despite careful captive breeding programs, genetic diversity loss and disease pose a significant threat to the species today. Kurt, the first cloned Przewalski’s foal, was born in August 2020, according to officials at the San Diego Zoo.
Kurt’s cell line was created using cryopreserved DNA from a stallion who died in 1998. Once the foal reaches adulthood, researchers hoped it will contribute to valuable genetic diversity.
The first Przewalski horse born through artificial insemination was welcomed into the National Zoo in Washington DC, in 2013. This success represented an exciting breakthrough in preserving the species and the possibility of increasing genetic diversity without having to transport horses to captive breeding facilities. (Source: National Geographic)