As we shiver into another Canadian winter and fret over blanketing our horses, there is a breed of horse that enters a hibernation state to cope with freezing temps. The Yakut horses live in northern Siberia, where you can guess it’s pretty darn cold – indeed, average winter temperatures are in the frigid -40 degree Celcius range.
A group of international scientists led by author Ludovic Orlando, PhD, of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, sought to find out how these small horses survived such extreme conditions. Their paper, Tracking the origins of Yakutian horses and the genetic basis for their fast adaptation to subarctic environments https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1513696112 was originally publishing in 2015. The findings included that the Yakut horses, whose DNA sets their arrival in the region during the 13th and 15th centuries, evolved into having small bodies and short legs which helps to hold onto body heat. The thick coats, like all mammals, aids in insulating them from the icy temperatures.
But the standout news proved to be that the horses were found to enter a state of “torpor” similar to bears, that lowers body temps, slows heart rates, and reduces metabolic activity for hours at a time. Otherwise known as hibernation, this study was the first time the phenomenon was found in equines. The researchers further noted that the Yakut herd weren’t “sleeping” the entire winter, but were able to keep on the move, a phase that the science community call “standing hibernation.”
So next time you’re throwing that thick turnout over your horse, remember that somewhere in northern Siberia, a little horse is having a cozy nap.