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'Lake Baikal, where the ice queen cast her spell'
Mike Carter, The Observer, 2009

'Truly amazing' scientific discovery on adaptation of Yakutian horses to cold

By The Siberian Times reporter
28 December 2015

Fast track evolution as great Siberian symbol is surprisingly unmasked as an immigrant breed.

Researchers say these horses, which seem so well attuned to the harsh cold with thick, dense winter coats, their armour against temperatures of minus 70C (minus 94F), are incomers that only arrived in these parts within the last 800 years. Picture: Maria Vasilyeva

The resilient Yakutian horses are one of the great native sights of the Sakha Republic - or Yakutia. In their way as much a part of the classic Siberian scenery as permafrost, extinct woolly mammoths, diamonds and Laika dogs in this kingdom of cold. Except that these horses are not really native. 

Fascinating new scientific research has found that their seemingly built-in protection against extreme Arctic conditions is a recent phenomenon, at least by the normal tortoise-paced standards of evolution.

Researchers say these horses, which seem so well attuned to the harsh cold with thick, dense winter coats, their armour against temperatures of minus 70C (minus 94F), are incomers that only arrived in these parts within the last 800 years. Yet during that time, the requirement to survive has seen a quick-fire - almost overnight in relative terms - evolution by this species of horse. 

Moreover, there was indeed a breed of horses native to this vast area of Russia, in which lie the coldest permanently inhabited communities on the planet. But these true native horses became extinct, at roughly the same time as the woolly mammoth and rhinoceros also died out, finally disappearing around 5,000 years ago.

With thick coat to keep it warm, the little Yakut horse loves nothing better than running about the frozen fields 


With thick coat to keep it warm, the little Yakut horse loves nothing better than running about the frozen fields 

'This is truly amazing as it implies that all traits now seen in Yakutian horses are the product of very fast adaptive processes.' Pictures: Maria Vasilyeva

It transpires that a human population migrating within the last millennium to this land of ice - probably from Mongolia - brought horses with them, and these are the ancestors of today's distinctive Yakut horses, shown in our pictures. 

'This is truly amazing as it implies that all traits now seen in Yakutian horses are the product of very fast adaptive processes, taking place in about 800 years,' explained Dr Ludovic Orlando, leader of an international team of scientists.

'This represents about 100 generations for horses. That shows how fast evolution can go when selective pressures for survival are as strong as in the extreme environment of Yakutia.'

The forebears of today's hardy horses are the domesticated stock of Mongolia, not the wild horses known to have roamed Yakutia in ancient times, a species that remains today only in fossil form. Yet these migrant horses were central to the lives of the population that settled in Yakutia: had these animals not coped with, and thrived on, the cold, these human societies would not have survived. 

With thick coat to keep it warm, the little Yakut horse loves nothing better than running about the frozen fields 


With thick coat to keep it warm, the little Yakut horse loves nothing better than running about the frozen fields 


With thick coat to keep it warm, the little Yakut horse loves nothing better than running about the frozen fields 

'In the genome of the Yakutian horses, we found the mutations that help the adaptation: revealed genes involved in the development of hair, affecting the body size, metabolic and hormonal signaling ways.' Pictures: Maria Vasilyeva

'We know now that the extinct population of wild horses survived in Yakutia until 5,200 years ago,' he said. 'It extended from the Taymir peninsula to Yakutia, and probably all across the entire Holarctic region. In Yakutia, it may have become extinct prior to the arrival of Yakut people and their horses. Judging from the genome data, modern Yakutian horses are no closer to the extinct population than is any other domesticated horse.'

The research pinpointed the genes responsible for this supersonic evolution, finding similarities with both indigenous Siberian people and even woolly mammoths. Among them TGM3, involved in hair development, which may be responsible for the Yakutian horse's distinctive shaggy look, a key to shielding them from cold living outside all year round. The adaptations, many of them regulatory, also involved vasoconstriction, body size, hormones, and metabolism.

Researcher Dr Pablo Librado said: 'In addition to unveiling their evolutionary origins, our approach helped narrow down the genetic basis of adaptations that are unique to Yakutian horses. In one word, their genetic makeup.

Ancient horses


Przewalski's horses

The geomes of modern-day horses and ancient horse samples from this region were compared to one another, and to existing sequences for dozens of domestic, still-wild Przewalski's, and ancient horses. Pictures: Patrice G/Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, floato

'We also found genes that were reported to have undergone selection in other Arctic populations, such as indigenous Siberian humans, and even the woolly mammoth. It provides a compelling example of evolutionary convergence, where unrelated groups exposed to similar environments end up independently developing similar adaptations.'

The research included genome sequencing on nine modern-day Yakutian horses, plus two ancient horse samples from this region, one from the early 19th century, and another 5,200 years old. 

The genomes were then compared to one another, and to existing sequences for dozens of domestic, still-wild Przewalski's, and ancient horses. As for the earlier, extinct horses in this region, for example as seen in ancient remains on the Taymyr Peninsula, bore no close relationship to today's Yakutian horse population, and no more than to any modern breeds. 

'The population from the Taymyr peninsula does not coincide with anything that paleontologists have ever described,' said Dr Orlando. This group is estimated to have diverged from the modern horse lineage around 160,000 years ago, the researchers estimate. They were as diverged from modern horses as humans are from Neanderthals, he said.

With thick coat to keep it warm, the little Yakut horse loves nothing better than running about the frozen fields 


With thick coat to keep it warm, the little Yakut horse loves nothing better than running about the frozen fields 


With thick coat to keep it warm, the little Yakut horse loves nothing better than running about the frozen fields 

Yet these migrant horses were central to the lives of the population that settled in Yakutia: had these animals not coped with, and thrived on, the cold, these human societies would not have survived. Pictures: Maria Vasilyeva

Russian scientist Artem Nedoluzhko, head of the Laboratory of Bioinformatics and Genomics Research of Kurchatov Institute, in Moscow, who was involved in the research, said: 'We have shown that the Yakutian horse is one of the fastest cases of adaptation to the extreme Arctic temperatures. 

'In the genome of the Yakutian horses, we found the mutations that help the adaptation: revealed genes involved in the development of hair, affecting the body size, metabolic and hormonal signaling ways. The changes found in the genome of Yakutian horses are an essential part of the adaptive genetic tools of the body. 

'In addition, we found evidence of convergent evolution of the Yakutian horse with human populations that live in Siberia and mammoths, suggesting the existence of multiple evolutionary strategies needed to survive in extreme climatic conditions.'

Dr Orlando is from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, part of the University of Copenhagen. Findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA.

Comments (5)

Rita these horses has adapted over 800 years(not a long time to be honest) Their winter coat can be as thick as 10cm they have no problem surviving a long winter. they have better hearing and smelling than your lovely arabian. and great you love the horses but you (and others) need to see when animals are fine. These horses serve more purporse to the yakutian people giving them: Transport, meat, milk, skin/fur, AND friends. We do only get transport and a friend for life. So PLEASE do not look down upon those who let the horses they do not need run free and happy and only keep what they need.
Alissa, Denmark
04/12/2016 05:50
0
0
These horses are interesting. I was here.
bill , cincinnati, USA
24/03/2016 22:36
1
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A very fascinating piece of the history of our planet which still exists and flourishes today. I love horses. The accompanying images are stunning and clearly depict the harsh (to say the least) conditions of their environment. Just finished the new book The Horse which details the story of the horse from its very beginning, including its evolution to the great steeds of today. I don't recall if the Yakutian horse was a part of that compendium, however. Thanks to Siberian Times for posting this illustrative history of the Yakutian horse. I am taking an online art course called Drawing Horses with Val Webb and I believe I will add a sketch of the Yakutian horse to my sketchbook in honor of this stunning animal.
Carole Jurack, Chardon, OH, USA
05/02/2016 18:53
2
0
I do not think the condition of the Yakutian horses is cruel. They have been living with the Yakutian people as part of their culture for about 800 years, and their ancestors problem lived a long time with the people before the group migrated to the Siberian area. The article tells us that they have evolved, during that time, to survive the extreme conditions. Other animals have moved into arctic areas and evolved to make it their home. Polar bears, arctic wolves and foxes and hares. Birds, marine mammals. I think it is likely these animals are prized by the people who live with them, in some cases even loved. Life is cruel to all in such an extreme environment. I think at time the humans and this sturdy breed of horse help each other to survive the cruelty of the environment.
Mary Dearing, Sumner, WA USA
17/01/2016 23:50
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1
It is obvious that this poor sweet animals do greatly SUFFERING :( NO BARN where NO WIND and HEAVY barn
insulation. To me looks like torturing this sweet tame loving animals. My father had a beautiful white arab horse
w.dark grey speckles, the horse did lied down aside us kids very close, we were petting her and she came closer
and put her head in our lap. We would never forget it. She went in the kitchen when the door was open, we kids
did forget to close it :O) she KNEW in which kitchen cabinet was the sugar cubes in the bag :O) She dropped the
bag on the table and waited for my mamka to give her the 2x weekly her sugar cubes, when she finished :O) was so very happy that she gave out very happy sounds : Nyihiiiiiiiim hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii :) and she went back out side close
to us. We loved her very much. She had a cozy barn : Cool in sommer, warm in winter. Animals suffer too from elements NOT only us humans :( Should be a law against animal CRUELTY :(
Rita, Budapest
17/01/2016 11:50
2
9
1

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