Meet Kurt the colt. Born August 6, 2020, he’s adorable, energetic and as athletic as any foal. He’s also a rare breed known as the Przewalski horse. And rarer still, Kurt is a clone.
Considered the closest relative of the prehistoric horse, the Przewalski population is approximately 2,000 animals, all of which are living in zoos. According to experts the last wild Przewalski horse was spotted in 1969.
Found originally in central Asia, most commonly in Mongolia, the breed became critically endangered in the 20th century thanks to war, hunting and habitat loss. A few wild horses were captured in the early 1900s and 12 of these became the foundation stock to preserve the breed.
But that narrow DNA pool stoked fears of genetic diseases and abnormalities and what is known as “genetic drift.” To try and offset these concerns, other breeds of horses were bred to the remaining Przewalski horses to enhance the gene pool. Unfortunately, this meant the horses that remain today are not genetically diverse, something that is considered necessary for preserving a species.
Kurt is the exception. His sire is a Przewalski’s horse named Kuporovic, who lived from 1975 to 1998. According to sciencealert.com, “an analysis of the captive breeding pedigree revealed that Kuporovic’s genome had unique ancestry from two wild founders. This meant he offered significantly more genetic variation than any of his living relatives, so in 1980, scientists took a sample and preserved it in San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo.” And that’s the mind-blowing bit and bears repeating; the DNA from Kurt’s sire was cryopreserved in 1980.
“This colt is expected to be one of the most `genetically important individuals of his species” Bob Wiese, chief life sciences officer at San Diego Zoo Global, told reporters. “We are hopeful that he will bring back genetic variation important for the future of the Przewalski’s horse population.”
Watch Kurt cavorting with his domestic surrogate dam:
The idea of cloning is controversial and expensive. There have been cases of polo ponies winning over their “normal” counterparts. The FEI and AQHA have all weighed in – the FEI hasn’t ruled against the use of clones cantering in the show jumping ring, but the AQHA has recently won a court battle banned clones from its registry. Pet owners including Barbra Streisand have spent thousands of dollars replicating beloved pets. The singer spent a reported $50,000 each for a clone of a deceased Coton de Tulear.
But using such scientific advances to save a species on the brink of extinction sounds like a better use of the research. Of course, the success of Kurt has one of the cloning companies involved in the project thinking of other species that might be worth bringing back: the woolly mammoth!