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Wild horses, just like humans, live in a complex, multilevel society

In the vast expanse of Hortobágy National Park, the Przewalski’s wild horses, a breed known for its wild nature and historical significance, has been the subject of an illuminating study.

Collaborating on the project, the Hungarian Research Network (HUN-REN), the University of Debrecen (UD), the Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), and the Hortobágy National Park Directorate have recently unearthed fascinating details about the social structures of these magnificent animals.

Rather than relying on traditional, on-ground observational methods which can be time-consuming and might miss the broader group dynamics, these researchers adopted a novel method. They used drones to monitor the herd from above.

With a sizeable herd of 278 Przewalski’s horses to monitor, this wasn’t a simple task. Katalin Ozogány, the study’s first author and member of the HUN-REN–UD Behavioural Ecology Research Group, remarked, “We wanted to investigate the group movements of the Przewalski’s horse herd in Hortobágy, Hungary. However, observing nearly 300 horses at the same time is not an easy task.”

Undeterred, the team used two drones to track each horse, offering a high temporal and spatial resolution of their movements. The aerial videos taken played a pivotal role, helping the researchers determine movement routes for every individual.

Wild horses have multi-level social structures

Their findings, published in the esteemed scientific journal, Nature Communications, were profound. Not only do Przewalski’s horses exhibit a multi-tiered social system similar to humans, but they also have layers of interaction that can be comprehended through these high-resolution aerial recordings.

While multilevel social structures are primarily identified in primates, certain other species, including cetaceans, elephants, and some ungulates, also display this complexity. They often form smaller units, like harems, which then come together to form a larger community.

Interestingly, these horses, which have been residing in the Pentezug reserve of Hortobágy since 1997, initially maintained their separate home territories. Yet, for over a decade, these once-independent harems have coalesced into one large herd.

Decoding the herd’s social network

Máté Nagy, the study’s lead author, elucidated upon analyzing the herd’s movements. He said, “The individuals of the group coordinate their movements and align with each other. By detecting these fine interactions between the individuals, it turned out that we can assess the herd’s social network based on the group movements.”

But how did the researchers tie short-term observations with broader, long-term trends? Viola Kerekes, project leader of the Hortobágy National Park Directorate, shed light on this. She explained that the park had meticulously recorded population data over the past two decades.

“Thanks to population monitoring, we know the parentage of the animals, which we also confirm with genetic sampling, as well as their place in the social system.”

Kinship and social bonds

The insights gleaned were enlightening. The social bonds among these wild horses heavily depend on their kinship and familiarity.

For instance, mares that have been in the same harem for longer periods tend to be closer in the social grid. The organization of harems into herds also appeared to be influenced by kinship. Harems led by sibling stallions are more interconnected than those of unrelated stallions.

Attila Fülöp, a co-author of the study, also commented. “It is an exceptional opportunity to explore the social network of an entire population and its dynamics.”

Surprisingly, they also found that by observing present movements, future group dynamics could be anticipated. “One of the surprising outcomes of the study is that we can infer future group dynamics by observing current movement,” added Zoltán Barta, another lead author.

These findings not only reveal unprecedented details about the Przewalski’s horses’ social life but also underscore the value of drone observations in studying even wild populations. Such innovative methodologies are broadening the horizons of animal behavior studies, allowing researchers to decipher the intricate dance of nature’s grand tapestry.

More about Przewalski horses

In the vast expanse of Central Asia’s steppes, the Przewalski horse (pronounced shuh-VAL-skee) gallops as a symbol of nature’s undomesticated spirit.

Known scientifically as Equus ferus przewalskii, these horses are the world’s last truly wild horse species, never having undergone domestication. Here, we delve into the fascinating world of these unique equines.

Physical features and characteristics

Distinct from domesticated horses, Przewalski horses possess a robust and sturdy physique that seems custom-made for the challenges of the wild. They stand shorter than most domestic horses, averaging about 12 to 14 hands high.

Their coat, primarily a dun color, contrasts with a pale belly, dark legs, and a dark mane. Unlike the flowing manes of many domesticated breeds, Przewalski horses have erect, short manes that lack a forelock.

Their thickset build, combined with strong legs and a muscular neck, equips them perfectly for life in tough terrains. Their faces, marked with a mealy muzzle and expressive eyes, give them a distinctive appearance.

Natural habitat and diet

Originally roaming vast territories spanning from the Russian steppes to the Chinese plains, Przewalski horses have always been creatures of open lands. Their natural habitat primarily comprises grasslands, semi-deserts, and steppes of Central Asia, especially Mongolia.

In these regions, they graze on a variety of grasses. Their diet, consisting mainly of fibrous grasses, can occasionally be supplemented with shrubs, leaves, and other available vegetation. Being wild, they continuously move in search of fresh grazing grounds and water sources.

Social structure and behavior

Przewalski horses lead intricate social lives. Typically, they form groups of up to 10 individuals, with a dominant stallion at the helm, accompanied by several mares and their young. This structure ensures protection from predators and effective resource utilization.

Young males, as they mature, may leave their birth group and form “bachelor” bands. These bands of young stallions live on the peripheries until they can establish or take over a family group of their own.

Conservation and current status

The 20th century wasn’t kind to Przewalski horses. Factors such as habitat loss, hunting, and competition with livestock led to a drastic decline in their numbers. By the 1960s, they were declared extinct in the wild.

However, a few of them remained in captivity. Thanks to the collective efforts of global zoos and conservationists, breeding programs were established to save the species from total extinction. Starting in the 1990s, reintroduction programs successfully returned these horses to protected reserves in Mongolia.

Today, their numbers are on the rise, but they aren’t out of danger. They remain listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List. Ongoing threats include habitat degradation, potential issues related to inbreeding, and the broader impacts of climate change.

The tale of the Przewalski horse serves as a poignant reminder of the delicate balance of nature and the indomitable spirit of life. Their resurgence from the brink of extinction stands testament to what concerted conservation efforts can achieve. As they gallop freely again in their native lands, these wild steeds underscore the importance of preserving the world’s natural wonders for future generations.

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