The last wild horses aren’t truly wild

DNA study finds that Przewalski’s horses had a tame ancestor

Przewalski’s horses

RETURN TO THE WILD The Przewalski’s horses of Central Asia, long thought to be the last always wild equine, are actually a feral population descended from horses tamed long ago, DNA reveals.


When it comes to wild claims, hold your horses.

Free-roaming Przewalski’s horses of Central Asia are often called the last of the wild horses, the only living equines never domesticated. But a new genetic analysis of ancient horse bones suggests that these horses have a tamed ancestor after all, making them feral rather than wild.

The findings also debunk the idea that these domesticated ancestors — known as Botai horses —gave rise to all other modern horses. That leaves the progenitors of today’s domesticated horses a mystery, researchers report online February 22 in Science.

The earliest known domesticated horses were those of the ancient Botai people in northern Kazakhstan (SN: 3/28/09, p. 15). Botai sites dating to around 5,500 years ago are scattered with remnants of harnesses and pots with horse-milk residue, suggesting the animals provided both transportation and food.

To see how Botai horses relate to today’s steeds, evolutionary geneticist Ludovic Orlando of the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen and colleagues analyzed DNA from 88 horses spanning the last 5,000 years or so across Europe and Asia. Horses from the last 4,000 years had less than 3 percent Botai ancestry, suggesting that different and unknown horses founded today’s populations. But Botai horses are direct ancestors of Przewalski’s horses, the study found.

SPOTTY HISTORY While studying the DNA of ancient horses, scientists found that some of the ancestors of today’s Przewalski’s horses would have had spotted coats like a Dalmatian, as re-created in this illustration using a Przewalski’s horse. That coat pattern was lost once these horses returned to the wild.L. ORLANDO, SEAS GODDARD AND ALAN OUTRAM

Erika Engelhaupt is a freelance science writer and editor based in Knoxville, Tenn.

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