What is the Przewalski horse?
The Przewalski horse is the rarest equine breed in the world and is considered the last truly wild species. They were originally found in Europe but are now limited to Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan after being artificially re-introduced to the wild over the last fifty years.
Interestingly, several of these re-introduced horses have been spotted inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in the past few weeks, taking refuge at various abandoned structures in anticipation for the colder winter months. A safe haven for wild horses is probably the last thing anybody expected of a notorious nuclear disaster zone but hey, I’m certainly here for it.
There are only 2,000 left globally today and the last confirmed sighting of an untracked, truly wild Przewalski horse was all the way back in 1969. Hunting, extreme temperatures, and livestock competition are largely to blame for their falling population, but Kurt’s birth is a promising opportunity to boost those numbers and improve the gene pool for future offspring.
He was created using DNA that was cryogenically frozen 40 years ago at the San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo, which houses over 10,000 living cell cultures, sperm, oocytes, and embryos for projects such as this one. It’s hoped that similar success can be found with other endangered animals in the future, improving the biodiversity of species that are in desperate need of help.
Why is this important to genetic diversity?
Creating Kurt was a collaborative effort between the Timber Creek facility, the San Diego Zoo, and Revive and Restore. The latter specialises in utilising genetics to preserve and restore endangered and extinct species.
Ryan Phelan, executive director at Revive and Restore, stated that ‘cloning can save species by allowing us to restore genetic diversity that would have otherwise been lost to time’, and noted that Kurt represented an ‘opportunity for genetic rescue’. The plan is to eventually introduce the horse to the Safari Park in San Diego, where his future offspring may be allowed to return to the wild. Time to get busy Kurt.
By creating horses that use brand new genetics, the Przewalski population will now have a larger gene pool and far more opportunity for diversity among future births. It’ll allow an even greater comeback for the species that could see population growth exceed 10,000 in a matter of decades. We may even be able to bring back extinct species of other animals – it’s all dependent on how many frozen samples we have stored in places like the San Diego Zoo.
For now, we should celebrate this exciting step forward. No word on whether we can start cloning all our pets just yet, though that may be a rabbit hole that’s not worth falling down – imagine the chaos of twenty identical cats running around your house.