Scientists Study How Climate Change Affects Horses

Horses suffered the effects of rapid climate change during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene epochs.

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With climate change come earthquakes, flooding, droughts, disruptions in plant growth, and the extinction of large mammals—including horses. At least that’s what happened 50,000 years ago during the last great episode of global warming. And while the extinction of domestic horses is unlikely in this current situation of climate change, rising temperatures could still have significant effects on our horses.

“The major threats of current climate change to domestic horses would be the extreme climate in short time (such as drought, heat, snow, etc.), which need to be carefully monitored and prevented,” said Zhibin Zhang, PhD, a researcher in the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Zoology, in Beijing. “And effects of the current climate warming on natural or biological disasters (which could affect domestic horse breeding and management) need to be further investigated.”

Like many large mammalian species, horses suffered the effects of the rapid climate change that occurred during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene epochs. While it didn’t cause their total extinction, like it did for mammoths and frigid-zone rhinoceroses, it did lead them to migrate toward the North Pole in Eurasia, Zhang said. One species, the Equus capensis, did finally die out in the late Pleistocene, but the Przewalski’s and domestic horse (Equus caballus), as well as donkeys and onagers, survived.

Once displaced, they became principle prey to humans in these cooler regions—a phenomenon that might have been accentuated by the fact that so many other large mammal species had died out, Zhang said. While hunting further threatened species survival, the horses held out—probably due to their smaller size (which allowed them to live off less food than a mammoth could) and high fertility rates, he added

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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