In a first for scientists, a foal of the world's last true wild horse has been born by way of artificial insemination.
The birth of a female Przewalski's horse (pronounced "cha-VAL-skee") on July 27 at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) in Virginia was celebrated as a major achievement for the survival of the endangered species, once thought to have been extinct in the wild.
"It seems reasonable to assume that reproduction for the Przewalski’s horse would be similar to domestic horses, but it simply isn’t the case," Budhan Pukazhenthi, a reproductive physiologist with SCBI, said in a statement.
"After all these years of persevering, I can honestly say I was elated to receive the call informing me that the foal had been born," Pukazhenthi added. "I couldn’t wait to see her! This is a major accomplishment, and we hope our success will stimulate more interest in studying and conserving endangered equids around the world."
Przewalski's horses are native to the steppes of central Asia, though before the 19th century, their range may have extended to Eastern Europe. The animals were once listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as "extinct in the wild." But in 1996, with the discovery of a single mature individual in the wild, the species was re-listed as critically endangered.
Since then, dozens of captive Przewalski's horses have successfully reintroduced into their natural habitats. There are around 1,500 of the horses living in captivity, all carrying the genes of just 14 original animals. Meanwhile, there are now thought to be fewer than 500 individuals in the wild, mostly in Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan, and the species in listed as endangered.
Though the newborn filly's parents, Anne and Agi, both live at SCBI, researchers say the beauty of artificial insemination is that it does not require both animals to be in the same place for a successful mating. This is a major benefit for Przewalski’s horse breeding efforts since their numbers are so small and transporting them can be costly and stressful for the creatures.
SCBI officials said Anne and the foal are in good health and bonding.