Horse, Przewalski's

views updated

Horse, Przewalski's

Equus przewalskii

phylum: Chordata

class: Mammalia

order: Perissodactyla

family: Equidae

status: Endangered, ESA

range: China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia

Description and biology

Przewalski's horse is the last truly wild horse. Slightly smaller than most domestic horses, it has a compact body with a thick neck and large head. The color of its upper body is dun (a dull grayish brown), while its belly and muzzle are much lighter. The horse has a dark stripe along its backbone and a dark, plumed tail. The dark hair on its head and along its neck (the mane) is short and stands erect. Unlike the domestic horse, Przewalski's horse sheds its mane and the short hairs at the base of its tail annually.

An average Przewalski's horse may reach 8 feet (2.4 meters) in length and stand 4 to 4.5 feet (1.2 to 1.4 meters) high at its shoulders. It may vary in weight between 440 and 750 pounds (200 and 340 kilograms). The horse feeds primarily on grass and other low vegetation.

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

Groups of Przewalski's horses are headed by a dominant stallion (male), which is responsible for breeding with most of the group's females. The females usually give birth to a single foal (infant) between April and June, after a gestation (pregnancy) period of 330 to 340 days. The foals may nurse for up to two years.

Habitat and current distribution

Przewalski's horses prefer open grassland, steppe (vast, semiarid grass-covered plain), and semidesert areas. The last possible sighting of Przewalski's horse in the wild was in 1968. Chinese biologists (people who study living organisms) believe there may be a small population of horses inhabiting northeastern Xingiang (an autonomous region in northwestern China). It is more likely that this group is extinct.

Over 1,000 Przewalski's horses are currently held in captivity in zoos and reserves around the world.

History and conservation measures

Przewalski's horse was discovered in 1878 by Russian geographer and explorer Nikolai Mikhailovich Przhevalsky (1839-1888). Scientists believe the horse once ranged from western Mongolia to northern Xingiang and western Kazakhstan.

By 1900, hunting and competition with domestic horses for food and water greatly reduced the Przewalski's horse population. By the 1950s, the remaining animals were seen in a small area between southwestern Mongolia and northwestern China called the Takhin-Shara-Nuru (mountain of the yellow horses). The Przewalski's horse was last seen in the wild in 1968.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) listed the species as extinct in the wild in 1996. However, the Przewalski's horse has become a great success story in the ongoing efforts to preserve species through reintroduction to the wild. In 1992, 16 horses bred in captivity and chosen for their genetic (inherited) traits were slowly and carefully reintroduced to the wilderness at Hustai National Park in Mongolia. By 2000, 84 horses had been reintroduced and 114 foals had been born in the wild. In the early 2000s, a population of around 142 Przewalski's horses roamed freely in the park, and the animals appeared to be doing better each year they spend in the wild. They are being very carefully watched and protected as they adapt to the original habitat of the species.