Przewalski’s Horses

Equus ferus przewalskii

Przewalski’s horses are icons of ancient history and modern conservation efforts. Smithsonian scientists track these animals to understand how they occupy their habitats and to preserve zoo’s historical investment in the restoration of this species.

Facts

Height: 1.3-1.5m (4.3 to 5 ft) at the shoulder

Weight: 250-360kg (550 to 800 lbs)

Conservation Status: Endangered

Typically ranging all over Eurasia, P-horses were last observed in the wild in the 1960s before their populations were pushed to extinction from anthropogenic stressors.

Unlike domesticated horses, who have 64 chromosomes, Przewalski’s horses have 66. Despite this difference, they are able to successfully interbreed and produce viable offspring that look like p-horses.

Tracking

The Przewalski’s horse’s story of extinction is as interesting as its remarkable story of recovery. This species of horse was last seen in the Gobi Desert during the 1960s, before it was driven to extinction by pressures such as competition for resources with livestock, harsh winters, and over hunting. Now the Przewalski’s horse serves as a symbol for the conservation importance of zoos, being the sole extant wild horse that has only survived because of breeding programs in zoos. During reintroduction efforts to their native ranges, several individuals did not survive the harsh winter, prompting researchers to contact the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) for critical research and increasing the tracking capabilities of the released horses to important sites such as the Kalamaili Nature Reserve in Xinjiang, China and the Hustai Nuruu National Park in Mongolia.

Preliminary tracking results prompted questions regarding this reintroduced species: How would the Przewalski’s horses utilize different parts of the available landscape? What is the average home range size for a group of these individuals, and are their seasonal patterns to their movement behavior? Another important question involved assessing environmental and biotic factors that would limit how they move through their landscape—such as water availability, foraging pressures from livestock, predation, and social structure among individuals. By collaring the released horses, Smithsonian scientists and their collaborators are able to evaluate many of these questions, but this collaring process has its limitations due to the social structure of this species. Typically there are groups of females, known as mares, led by a dominant male, or stallion. There are also groups of stallions that create bachelor herds that will travel to battle dominant stallions for leadership responsibilities of their herd of mares. The collars typically cannot withstand the fights that stallions engage in, and because of this they are primarily worn by mares. The data collected from these collars gave scientists insight into where the harem of mares and their stallion travelled, but left more to be understood regarding the movement patterns of the bachelor herds of Przewalski’s horse stallions. Technological developments at SCBI have assessed the impact of tail-mounted tracking devices to evaluate the movement patterns of these bachelor stallions, and these prototypes are being tested on captive individuals before being deployed in the field.

Along with these technological developments, Smithsonian scientists are continuing to track 10 horses in Kalamaili National Park and 15 individuals in Hustai National Park using GPS collars. This data helps them understand the current threats to the species, which includes resource allocation and competition between other wild species and livestock that occupy the grassland.

Meet the Team

Peter Leimgruber, Ph.D.

Conservation Biologist
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI)
Conservation Ecology Center

Melissa Songer, Ph.D.

Conservation Biologist
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI)
Conservation Ecology Center

John McEvoy, Ph.D.

Conservation Biologist
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI)
Conservation Ecology Center

Resources

Scholarly Articles

Zhang, Y., Cao, Q. S., Rubenstein, D. I., Zang, S., Songer, M., Leimgruber, P., … Hu, D. (2015). Water use patterns of sympatric Przewalski’s horse and Khulan: Interspecific comparison reveals niche differences. PLoS ONE, 10(7), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0132094

Collaborators

Hustai Nuruu National Park

Minnesota Zoo

Senckenberg Museum

Wildlife Science and Conservation Center of Mongolia