Genes link wild horse herd in western Canada to Siberian breed

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Free-ranging horses in the Brittany Triangle have survived in the region since apparently being introduced to the area by First Nations people around 1750. Photo: Wayne McCrory
Free-ranging horses in the Brittany Triangle have survived in the region since apparently being introduced to the area by First Nations people around 1750. Photo: Wayne McCrory

A genetic study of a remote population of wild horses in Western Canada has posed a raft of new questions about their origins, with the results revealing an intriguing link to the Yakut horses of Siberia.

The preliminary study was conducted by equine geneticist Gus Cothron, from Texas A&M University, and biologist Wayne McCrory, of McCrory Wildlife Services.

The research, backed by the Valhalla Wilderness Society, the Friends of Nemaiah Valley and the Xeni Gwet’in (Nemiah) First Nation Goverment, among others, centered on the population of horses in a remote area of British Columbia known as the Brittany Triangle, which is bounded to the west by Chilko Lake.

There is widespread historic documentation that the common ancestral lineage of the wild horse in the Americas came from Spanish horses brought over from Spain in the early 1500s.

A small number of New World wild horse populations still maintain characteristics of their Spanish heritage, despite horses from other parts of Europe subsequently being introduced to North America.

It has long been assumed that the horses observed by European fur traders in the early 1800s in the Chilcotin area in southern-central British Columbia had descended from this Spanish stock. They had probably arrived in the general area around 1740, based on research conducted into historical documents by others.

Today, an estimated 1000 feral horses survive in remote areas of the Chilcotin Plateau, including an estimated 150-215 in the Brittany Triangle, which covers about 155,000 hectares.

Cothran and McCrory said the semi-isolated Brittany population was likely the most remote herd left in mainland Canada, having survived for several centuries alongside major predators that include grizzly bears, mountain lions and grey wolves.

The local First Nation tribe created a large preserve in 2002, which included the Brittany Triangle, to protect the horses, but have retained the right to capture them for domestic and work purposes.

Cothran and McCrory set about conducting genetic tests to establish whether the Chilcotin-Brittany
Triangle wild horses came from Spanish bloodlines, and to explore other ancestral genetic lineages.

They first analysed eight blood samples collected in 2003 and 2004 from domestic ranch horses that had been captured wild in the Brittany Triangle. The results pointed to some probability of lines from horses on Europe’s Iberian Peninsula, and possibly Spanish ancestry, but this was considered preliminary because of the very small sample size.

Following this, 99 viable hair samples were collected from the wild between 2006-2010 and these were subjected to genetic analysis.

“Our genetic study raises more questions than it answers,” Cothran and McCrory admitted in their report. “But it does dispel our earlier tentative results from blood samples and the hypothesis that the Brittany horses today still have Spanish ancestry.”

The more refined analysis and larger sample size using the hair showed no conclusive Spanish ancestry, they said.

However, the pair stressed that their results did not disprove the considerable historic evidence that the Brittany Triangle population was linked to Spanish horses to the south. If that were the case, it meant the wild horses in the Brittany Triangle has undergone considerable transformation since these earlier times, as with many other New World horse populations where few retain any Spanish ancestry.

“Since European contact in the early 1800s, many different Old World breeds have been brought into
the area, including during the Caribou gold rush in the 1860s, with some escaping or being
deliberately released into the wilds,” Cothran and McCrory noted.

“Or, alternatively, the foundation herds in the Brittany Triangle were actually different from Spanish horses altogether.”

These, they said, would remain unanswered questions.

Comparing their results with the genetic profiles of 69 different horse breeds, they found that the Brittany Triangle horses of today are paired with the Canadian Horse breed within the cluster that includes the Shire, Clydesdale, Highland Pony, Eriskay Pony, Fell Pony, and Dales Pony.

“This is a natural cluster of the domestic breeds, which are native British breeds except for the Canadian.”

The origins of the herd were largely from the heavy horse types and, specifically, it appeared that the officially recognized Canadian Horse breed (or its ancestors) contributed significantly to the ancestry of the Brittany Triangle horses. This, they said, warranted further investigation.

The great degree of similarity among individuals was also indicative of isolation, they added.

A Yakutian horse.
A Yakutian horse. © Maarten Takens / Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0

But undoubtedly the most intriguing result related to the possibility that Yakut horses, an ancient horse of Russian heritage, also contributed to the origins of the herd.

“However, this requires more study and probably more baseline samples from Eastern Russia,” they said.

“We found very limited historic documentation to support the most obvious hypothesis that the Yakut horse bloodlines arrived in the remote Brittany Triangle of British Columbia from Russian fur traders along the adjacent Pacific Coast.

“Further research is needed to determine the possible genetic pathways of what appear to be the
somewhat unique Canadian and Yakut ancestry in the Brittany Triangle wild horse herds.”

It was, they said, important to conserve the gene pool until more was understood.

The report can be read here

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