Cloned Horse Could Hold the Key to Bringing Back Endangered Species

by Taylor Cunningham
(Photo credit should read PATRICK PLEUL/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)

A cloned stallion named Kurt was just introduced to a herd of Przewalski’s horses at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. And he might be the key to saving the species from extinction.

Przewalski’s horses are an incredibly rare animal native to the steppes of Central Asia. There are less than 2,000 of them left in the world. And their genetic lines are so closely related, that it has been nearly impossible to expand the population. But Kurt offers special DNA that could fix that problem.

“We plan to have Kurt produce many offspring here,” Oliver Ryder, the director of Conservation Genetics at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, said. “We are considering also producing more copies of Kurt because he’s so valuable. And it’s possible that eventually, Kurt would go to another institution. To allow the establishment of this lost genetic variation.”

Scientists froze Kurt’s DNA over four decades ago and kept it in the San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo, which is a repository of cell samples from thousands of animals. And in 2020, a company called ViaGen finally cloned the prize horse in Texas. He was born in 2020, and he just recently made his way to California.

The Cloned Horse Reintroduces a Lost Line of Genetics to the Population

The wild Przewalski’s horse population went extinct in the 1960s due to habitat loss and overhunting. And coordinated breeding programs reintroduced the animal to its native land. However, efforts to bring the animal off of the endangered species list have been stalled thanks to the genetic roadblock.

Kurt’s genes are completely different from all the living horses. Over the decades, his ancestors died off. So he is effectively offering a new family tree.

“We are restoring genetic variation,” Ryder continued. “Turning back the clock or reversing the process of the loss of genetic variation.”

Currently, researchers are trying to teach Kurt how to act like a Przewalski’s horse so breeding is possible. Like all cloned animals, he wasn’t born into a herd where his mother and fellow horses showed him how to survive. And that poses unique challenges.

To help him, his handlers put him in an enclosure at the Safari Park with a young mare named Holly. Their pen is located next to another enclosure that houses a small herd of Przewalski’s horses. If all goes as planned, Kurt will watch how the other animals socialize and pick up on their cues.

“They get the chance to see this larger horse herd up on the hill above their habitat,” shared Gavin Livingstone, curator of mammals at San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “And so they can communicate and vocalize back and forth, and to continue spreading those behaviors and teaching Kurt all these necessary and important horse skills.”

If the cloned horse manages to learn the ropes, he will become the herd’s alpha stallion in the future. But the entire plan rests on his ability to operate naturally and instinctually as a wild horse.

“It’s important that he have the natural social skills because he needs those to be a productive member of Przewalski’s horse society,” Livingstone added.