Scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine are celebrating the birth of a female Przewalski’s (Cha-VAL-skee) horse—the first to be born via artificial insemination.
The foal’s birth on July 27 signaled a huge breakthrough for the survival of this species. Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine equine reproductive specialist, Dr. Aime Johnson played a significant role as a research collaborator, reproduction specialist, consultant and educator.
SCBI Reproductive Physiologist Budhan Pukazhenthi and the horse husbandry team spent years working closely with experts at The Wilds and, more recently, Dr. Johnson, an associate professor in Auburn’s Department of Clinical Sciences, to perfect the technique of assisted breeding.
“It seems reasonable to assume that reproduction for the Przewalski’s horse would be similar to domestic horses, but it simply isn’t the case,” said Pukazhenthi. “After all these years of persevering, I can honestly say I was elated to receive the call informing me that the foal had been born. I couldn’t wait to see her! This is a major accomplishment, and we hope our success will stimulate more interest in studying and conserving endangered equids around the world.”
Johnson, who has been at Auburn since 2007, worked collaboratively with Pukazhenthi both in Auburn and at SCBI. As the process continued, Johnson worked closely with SCBI staff to provide expert opinion. Board certified in the American College of Theriogenologists, Johnson is co-director of Auburn’s Equine Reproduction Center.
The Przewalski’s horse is considered the last wild horse on the planet, although it is often mistaken for a breed of domestic horse, the Norwegian Fjord. Little is known about wild equids despite the extensive knowledge of domestic horses, Equus caballus.
The usefulness of artificial insemination is that it does not require both animals to be together for a successful mating. The transport of animals to different locations can be difficult, dangerous, costly and potentially stressful. By contrast, the collection of semen can be safely accomplished under the supervision of veterinary staff, and significantly improves the efficiency of managing small populations of endangered species.
The birth of Anne and Agi’s filly required hormonal treatments for inducing ovulation in a mare, specialized animal-handling facilities, conditioning Anne to provide urine samples for hormone monitoring, and routine ultrasounds. This accomplishment validates the importance of integrating animal management in the research and development of assisted reproductive technologies for endangered species.
Using ultrasound technology, Pukazhenthi confirmed the pregnancy approximately 35 days after the insemination. The mare’s pregnancy was monitored closely for 11 months, measuring urinary hormone levels and visual keys (growing belly).
This work is part of SCBI, The Wilds and Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine’s collaboration with the Conservation Centers for Species Survival, a group of large conservation facilities in North America dedicated to cooperative breeding and research for the advancement of species conservation.
The Przewalski’s horse is a species native to China and Mongolia that was declared extinct in the wild in 1969 due to hunting, harsh climate, loss of habitat and loss of water sources. Today, approximately 1,500 Przewalski’s horses remain worldwide, carrying genes from only 14 original animals. As a result of on-going reintroduction efforts, fewer than 500 of this species roam freely in Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan.
SCBI scientists are working in remote areas of China using radio collars and Geographic Information System technology to map the movements of these horses, which were reintroduced by Chinese colleagues into their former habitat. Committed to preserving this species and equid research in general, SCBI works to maintain breeding populations that serve as a source of animals for reintroduction.