Cloned Przewalski’s Horse Learning the Language of Wild Horses

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By Mark Andrews

A rare Przewalski’s horse named Kurt, produced by cloning in 2020, is thriving at his home at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and learning the language of being a wild horse from Holly, a young female of his own species.

Kurt was cloned from the DNA of a Przewalski’s horse that was frozen 42 years ago. It is hoped that once he reaches maturity in a couple of years, he will be able to breed and return lost genetic diversity to his species.

By the end of the 1960s, Przewalski’s horse, considered to be the last truly wild horse, was extinct in the wild. Some individuals survived in zoos and an intensive breeding program managed to revive the species, allowing horses to be reintroduced to their natural habitat in the 1990s. 

Although there are now over 700 animals roaming the Mongolian steppes, almost all are related to just 12 individuals. This loss of genetic diversity is a cause for concern, and maintaining genetic variation is likely to be an important part of ensuring the species’ survival in the future.

Kurt was born to a surrogate mother, a domestic Quarter Horse, which means he had no experience of other Przewalski’s horses. San Diego Zoo Safari Park wildlife care experts embarked on an effort to ensure the young male gained the behavioural language he will need to interact and thrive among his own species.  

“Przewalski’s horses normally live in groups where a youngster secures their place in the herd from their mother,” said Kristi Burtis, DM, director of wildlife care, San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “Because Kurt was not born into a herd, he didn’t know the behavioural language that is unique to Przewalski’s horses. Our first step to socialize him was introducing him to Holly.” 

Holly arrived at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in May 2021. Just a few months older than Kurt, Holly was raised in a Przewalski’s horse herd and had the full repertoire of wild horse language to share. Wildlife care specialists at the Safari Park introduced the two, hoping that Holly could serve as a mentor and teacher to Kurt. 

After some behavioural sparring, the two have settled into an affectionate pairing. Kurt and Holly have been in a secluded, private habitat since their arrival at the Safari Park and were recently introduced to the Safari Park’s Central Asia field habitat, where they are now viewable by guests. This move will further prepare them to soon join the larger herd of Przewalski’s horses, and the plan is for Kurt to be the breeding stallion when he reaches maturity at three to four years of age. 

“Kurt is significant to his species because he offers the hope of bringing back lost genetic diversity to the population,” said Dr. Nadine Lamberski, chief conservation and wildlife health officer, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. “It is imperative to do everything we can to save this genetic diversity before it disappears.”

By reviving genetic diversity that was stored in San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s Biodiversity Bank, conservationists hope to expand the strength of the species’ population.

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Initial Story: First Successful Cloning of Przewalski's Horse

Published with the kind permission of Mark Andrews, Equine Science Update.

Photo: Kurt (left), the world’s first cloned Przewalski’s horse, and Holly, in a field habitat at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Credit: Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance