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In a huge breakthrough for the survival of an endangered species, the first Przewalski’s Horse to be born via artificial insemination was delivered at the National Zoo's Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) on July 27.  

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Photo Credit:  Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

SCBI reproductive physiologist Budhan Pukazhenthi and the Przewalski’s Horse husbandry team spent seven years working closely with experts at The Wilds and Auburn University in Alabama to perfect the technique of assisted breeding. Both the filly and the first-time mother Anne are in good health and bonding.

“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,” said Pukazhenthi. “This is a major accomplishment, and we hope our success will stimulate more interest in studying and conserving endangered equids around the world.” 

Anne was born at SCBI and is the daughter of a mare imported from Europe and the most genetically valuable stallion in the U.S. The filly’s father Agi also lives at SCBI. The Przewalski’s Horse is considered the last wild Horse on the planet, although it is often mistaken for a breed of domestic Horse, the Norwegian Fjord. Little is known about wild equids despite the extensive knowledge of domestic Horses.

Read more and see additional photos below the fold.

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The usefulness of artificial insemination is that it does not require both animals to be together for a successful mating. The transport of animals to different locations can be difficult, dangerous, costly and potentially stressful to the individual. By contrast, the collection of semen can be safely accomplished under the supervision of veterinary staff and significantly improves the efficiency of managing small populations of endangered species. The birth of Anne and Agi’s filly required hormonal treatments for inducing ovulation in a mare, specialized animal-handling facilities, conditioning Anne to provide urine samples for hormone monitoring and routine ultrasounds. This accomplishment validates the importance of integrating animal management in the research and development of assisted reproductive technologies for endangered species.

Using ultrasound technology, Pukazhenthi confirmed the pregnancy about 35 days after the insemination. The mare’s pregnancy was monitored closely for 11 months measuring urinary hormone levels and visual keys (such as her growing belly).

“Anne is a young, first-time mother,” said Dolores Reed, supervisory biologist at SCBI. “She had a normal pregnancy that lasted 340 days and the foaling lasted less than 10 minutes. I’ve raised a lot of foals and other hoofed stock over the years, but this filly feels like an extra-special triumph for us and her species.”

The Przewalski’s Horse is a species native to China and Mongolia that was declared extinct in the wild in 1969. Today, approximately 1,500 Przewalski’s Horses reside at zoological institutions worldwide, carrying genes from only 14 original animals. Due to hunting, harsh climate, loss of habitat and loss of water sources, fewer than 500 of this species are left in the wild. Currently, most live in Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. SCBI scientists are working in remote areas of China using radio collars and Geographic Information System technology to map the movements of these Horses, which were reintroduced by Chinese colleagues into their former habitat.

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is located in Front Royal, Virginia and is dedicated solely to the breeding of rare and endangered species.  It is not open to the public.

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