The Przewalski horse: an object of European curiosity from the 19th century (Part 5)

General Nikolai M. Przevalski

Russian Colonel Nikolai M. Przewalski. His name is sometimes ortographed “Przhevalsky” or “Prjewalski” / Source: The Long Riders’ Guild

In 1879, Colonel Nikolai M. Przewalski (1839-1888), a notorious Russian explorer and naturalist sent to Tibet by Tsar Alexander II of Russia, was presented with a Takhi hide and skull upon returning from his journey. Both animal parts were sent for examination to the Zoological Museum of the Academy of Science in St Petersburg where zoologist I. S. Poliakoff identified the Asian Wild Horse as a new species within the Equus genus and gave it its scientific name Equus ferus przewalskii in 1881[1]. Another notable report came from Grigory and Michael Grum-Grzhimailo, two Russian brothers who came upon Takhi bands in the Dzungarian Basin (Xinjiang) on their voyage across western China in 1889-1890. They shot a mare and three stallions whose hides and skulls together with an incomplete skeleton were again sent to St Petersburg. The hunters observed the equids closely and Continue reading

The Przewalski horse: a meat and trophy horse until the 20th century (Part 4)

The drastic climatic transformations brought by the end of the Ice Age did not durably affect wild horses. Their large 9 million km2 mid-Holocene (6,000 years ago) range suggests they had recovered by then and enjoyed thriving, though unevenly distributed populations[1]. According to archeological data from the first half of the Holocene (Mesolithic and early Neolithic periods), horse bones accounted for fewer than 10% of all kitchen garbage animal bones in Western and Central Europe against 40% on the Eurasian Steppe[2], showing that the equids were much more numerous eastwards, where they represented a primary source of meat for men as a result.

Horse husbandry took off during these times of plenitude. In the present state of research, horse domestication is generally ascribed to the Botai people who inhabited the grasslands of Northern Kazakhstan, near Astana, approximately 3,500 BC[3]. At least 77 distinct, non-Przewalski maternal lineages which already existed 10,000 years ago are represented Continue reading

The Przewalski horse: a prehistoric horse who lived through the Ice Age (Part 3)

N.B.: This clear chronostratigraphy may be helpful to situate the various dates, periods and events discussed in this article.

Equids first appeared on the earth 4-4,5 millions years ago[1] and went through tremendous evolution phases to acquire their contemporary appearance[2]. Horses originated in North America and subsequently migrated to South America and Eurasia through Beringia, which connected the continents during prehistoric glaciation periods[3]. Eurasian Steppe MapHorse populations significantly fluctuated in size over the past 2 million years in phase with colder and warmer periods[4], and the latest research suggest that climate has been “a major driving force” in megafauna population dynamics, including wild horses, over the past 50,000 years[5]. This latter period roughly corresponds to the second half of the Late Pleistocene (126,000-11,700 years ago) and is concurrent to the last glaciation commonly known as the Ice Age. During this period and until the end of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), which lasted from 26,500 to 20-19,000 years ago[6], horse populations boomed due to the expansion of their favored open steppe-type habitat to the detriment of woodland as a result of colder temperatures and a drier climate[7]. Continue reading

The Przewalski horse: the last extant wild horse (Part 2)

A single trait―wild―defines and distinguishes the Przewalski horse from any of its congeners. In Mongolia, where it originates from, its name Takh or Takhi (монголын тахь) means spirit horse. Yet, the residents of the Haus zur Wildnis are tame, much tamer than some semi-feral and feral horses I encountered in Canada, and most people would probably not call them wild. Appearances are often misleading: their affable disposition results from decades of captivity, hence familiarity to men, and does not prejudice their wildness at all. To determine the wild trait, one must investigate the history of the species through its biology, i.e. its DNA.

Thistle Creek, Yukon, Canada

Thistle Creek in Yukon (YT), Canada / Source: click here for original map

Two DNA research cast light on the complex evolutionary history and phylogeny of the Przewalski horse within the Equus genus, which until now remained unclear. The intent of the first study[1] was to determine the genetic relationship between Przewalski and modern domestic horses through assessing levels of genetic variation on sexual chromosomes and autosomes. The second research[2] was performed on the foot bone of an equid that lived 560,000 to 780,000 years ago (Middle Pleistocene). Recently fetched from the permafrost soils of the Canadian Arctic near Thistle Creek (Yukon), the foot had been well preserved Continue reading

An Encounter With the Przewalski Horse at the Haus zur Wildnis (Part 1)

Przewalski horses

Przewalski horses grazing at the Haus zur Wildnis. Credit: Yalakom

A few Przewalski horses (Equus ferus przewalskii) live at the Haus zur Wildnis, a small nature park located in the town of Ludwigsthal, Germany, at the edge of the Bavarian Forest National Park (BFNP). The horses arrived in 2005 as part of an exchange program between the Münchener Tierpark Hellabrunn and the BFNP. Originally, five horses, including one stallion, were sent to the site: Borodin[1], Holly[2], Fiuma[3], Nadia[4], and Calgary C23[5]. Since then, the herd has grown and during my visit in October 2013, I had the chance to see a foal (possibly a yearling).

The site’s configuration allows one to get a close look at the horses and appreciate their distinctive features. The friendly horses came to me as I approached the enclosure and called them out. Borodin and a couple of mares eagerly passed their neck through the wire fence, seemingly pleased to be petted. Still shy and spooky, the foal nevertheless joined in, keeping at close distance from his mother and resolutely out of my reach despite obvious curiosity.

Przewalski Foal

Przewalski foal at the Haus zur Wildnis. Credit: Yalakom

As an equine enthusiast and equestrian, my encounter with the Przewalski horse left me with a stack of unanswered questions. My mistake had been not to inform myself about the “last wild horse”―as zoos’ taglines advertise it―before sighting living specimens. As I subsequently researched and read extensively about the equid, its story stroke me as one worthy of interest even to those unacquainted with horses because underlying is a tale about men and human-nature interactions, synergies and dependencies. Continue reading

Spotted at the Haus zur Wildnis

While on a recent trip at the Bavarian Forest National Park (BFNP) in southeastern Germany, I visited the Haus zur Wildnis (House of Wilderness)a small zoo situated directly in the forest that keeps lynxes, grey wolves, Przewalski horses and Auroch-type cattle.

Grey Wolf at the Haus zur Wildnis, Germany

Grey Wolf at the Haus zur Wildnis, Germany. Credit: Yalakom

I could spot five grey wolves (Canis lupus) out of 12. The animals are kept in a small 4,5 ha enclosure that appears larger only because the fence is concealed by a natural bush cover. To put things into perspective, in the wild wolf territories can reach hundreds of square kilometers, like in southern and central Europe where typical ranges are comprised between 82 and 243 sq km. Size varies substantially depending on prey density, vegetation type and other factors.

Continue reading