Tail Hairs Reveal Gobi Desert Equids’ Dietary Choices

Przewalski’s and domestic horses feed exclusively on grass, while wild asses feed on grass along with shrubs in winter.

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The Przewalski’s horse, a species of wild horse that has been successfully reintroduced to Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, shares pasture with Asiatic wild ass, also called khulan, and local nomads’ free-ranging domestic horses. It’s clear that a scarce food supply could lead to competition among the different species, especially if they make the same dietary choices, but researchers haven’t been sure if all the species were, indeed, seeking the same food.

As such, a research team led by scientists from University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna), in Austria, recently chemically analyzed tail hairs from the animals to learn more about each of the three species’ seasonal dietary habits.

Martina Burnik Šturm, PhD, and Petra Kaczensky, DrRerSilv, from the Vetmeduni Vienna Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology, in cooperation with the Leibnitz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany, used a special method based on the chemical analysis of tail hairs to investigate the animals’ dietary habits. The analysis allowed them to determine the composition of the equids’ diets, which led to the discovery of increased dietary competition in the winter months.

The chemical analysis of the tail hairs revealed that Przewalski’s horses and domestic horses are year-round grazers, exclusively feeding on grass. Khulan, on the other hand, switch from grazing in the summer to “browsing” on a high proportion of shrubs in the winter

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