Despite genetic bottleneck, Polish Konik horse breeders have managed to limit inbreeding

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Polish Konik horses. Photo: Paulina Peckiel; Fornal et al. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani10091569

The population of one of the world’s iconic primitive breeds, the Polish Konik horse, was rebuilt after World War 2 from a tiny population that had survived the conflict. Just six male lines were available to breeders to put to Konik mares.

Despite this, gene-based research into today’s population of Polish Koniks show a low level of inbreeding, according to scientists.

This, they say, is probably due to good breeding management and the high genetic diversity of the breed’s founders.

Researchers, in a study published this week in the journal Animals, described their investigation of genetic diversity within the Polish Konik, based on the male founder lines.

The current Polish Konik population consists of 34 maternal and the six paternal lineages. However, of the maternal lines, only 16 are considered active.

Inbreeding has been successfully limited in the Polish Konik population, despite a bottleneck that arose during World War 2. Fornal et al. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani10091569

The studbook has been closed since 1984, when the Polish Konik was deemed a pure breed, and the addition of blood from other breeds was forbidden.

The genetic testing undertaken by Agnieszka Fornal and her colleagues at the National Research Institute of Animal Production in Krakow, Poland, included representatives of all paternal lineages, which probably allowed them to include all variants coming from sire lines.

“Despite the small number of paternal lineages in our research, the genetic diversity parameters were similar to those obtained for other native breeds in other countries reported in the literature,” they reported.

“Surprisingly, the inbreeding index indicates that there is no inbreeding in the analyzed Polish Konik population, despite the fact that the population experienced a bottleneck event of genetic diversity several decades ago.

“However,” they continued, “the breed’s genetic structure should be monitored because the population was derived from a small number of individuals and particular paternal lineages now have an uneven representation.

“This monitoring could be helpful for the Polish Konik breeding and conservation program and also for making informed decisions in paternal lineages management.

There is a hypothesis that the Polish Konik horse, with its primitive coat color — a dun-type with a predominant black Grullo coat color — exhibits the external features of the extinct Tarpan (Equus ferus ferus), and there is some evidence that Tarpans were crossbred with local primitive domestic horses.

The breeding history of Polish Konik horses is nearly 100 years old and began in 1923, when the first individuals were placed in the oldest National Polish Stud in Janów Podlaski.

The first Polish Konik Horses reserve was established in the Białowieża Forest in 1936. After World War 2, the population of Polish Konik horses was rebuilt from the small number of surviving individuals

In 1955, the Polish register was released, and in 1962, the first volume of the studbook for the breed was established.

Polish Koniks show hardiness, natural adaptive instincts, and show potential for controlling dense forest invasion of natural wetland areas.

Fornal, A.; Kowalska, K.; Zabek, T.; Piestrzynska-Kajtoch, A.; Musiał, A.D.; Ropka-Molik, K. Genetic Diversity and Population Structure of Polish Konik Horse Based on Individuals from All the Male Founder Lines and Microsatellite Markers. Animals 2020, 10, 1569.

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

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