Revolution in science: the wild horse looked completely different, genetic research has found

2014 - 12 - 31

Chapters in zoology textbooks devoted to wild horses which have been published in last eight decades are, in large part, invalid. European wild horses actually looked different than scientists have believed since the 1930s. This arises from the study Wild Horse and Aurochs: key species for landscape formation, on the origin of which there participated scientists of The Biology Centre of Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, South Bohemian University, Charles University and The Institute of Vertebrate Biology of Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. The study summarizes not only historical findings, but also the latest research that has been done in this field in recent years.

One of the greatest changes compared to the held explanation of last decades concerns wild horse coloration. “Modern genetic analysis of thousands of years old horse bones before and after domestication have shown the original coloration of wild horses in the whole of Eurasia was the bay horse. That means an animal with brown hair and black horsehair on the mane and tail. Also the lower parts of legs were dark. “This coloration occurred as the only one from Iberian Peninsula to the Far East,” points out co-author of the study Miloslav Jirků of The Biology Centre of Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. Modern genetic research thus definitely negated the fact that wild horses in Europe were originally grey. But in fact slaty grey coloured horses were just those which were bred by fanciers in Germany and Poland when in the first half of the last century they tried to breed back the horse as similar as possible to wild horses exterminated by man in Eurasia. The study published by scientists thus conclusively shows that these breeds known as the Heck horse and the Polish pony have nothing in common with wild horses.

“The point is more likely a return to the roots than a revolution. Horses with brown hair and black horsehair are portrayed in the wall paintings of primeval hunters which are many thousands of years old. The most modern research showed that primeval artists knew and were able to catch wild horses much more precisely than many scientists were willing to admit until recently,” added Dalibor Dostál, director of European Wildlife organisation.

The second essential change, which the study informs about, concerns wild horse expansion in Europe after the end of, for now, the last glacial period. So far there have often been speculations wild horses with glacier recession and climate change in Europe became completely extinct and they returned back long after the arrival of the first farmers. Genetic and archaeological research concentrated on wild horse expansion on the continent, however, proved that the area of wild horse expansion after a dramatic landscape transformation, or rather vegetation transformation caused by glacier recession, reduced but the horses managed to adapt even to that vast surroundings change and they survived. Their extermination came in fact a few millenniums later by man’s influence, mainly by excessive hunting, their natural environment transformation into farmland and pastures for domestic animals and last but not least by crossbreeding with the domestic horse with which last wild populations gradually fused.

Besides wild horses the study also devotes to aurochs. These animals together with the wisent and the wild horse belonged to the three crucial species of big hoofed animals which during millenniums formed Europe’s landscape face. European Wildlife organisation works now on the projects which aim for a rational use of big hoofed animals to cheap, semi-natural and long-term sustainable care of meadows and pastures.

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