How a Horse Evolved to Resist Staggering Cold Temperatures of -70

First Posted: Nov 30, 2015 10:26 AM EST

Yakutian horses have adapted to staggering cold temperatures of -70 degrees in eastern Siberia. This adaptation, though, occurred over a relatively short period of time-less than 800 years. Now, researchers are taking a closer look as to how this occurred.

Horses have been essential to the survival and development of the Yakut people, who migrated into the Far-East Siberia in the 13 to 15th century AD, probably from Mongolia. There, Yakut people developed an economy almost entirely based on horses. They were key for communication and keeping population contact within a territory that was slightly larger than Argentina. Horse meat was also crucial for surviving extremely cold winters.

In this latest study, the researchers compared the complete genomes of nine living and two ancient Yakutian horses from Far-East Siberia with a large genome panel of 27 domesticated horses. This revealed that the current population of Yakutian horses was founded following the migration of the Yakut people into the region in the 13th to 15th century.

So what does this mean? This shows that the Yakutian horses developed their striking adaptations to the extremely cold climate present in the region in less than 800 years. This is actually one of the fastest examples of adaptation within mammals.

The findings also show that the horses that the Yakut people now ride and rode all along their history are not related with a now-extinct wild horse lineage. Instead, they're related to domesticated horses from Mongolia.

"We know now that the extinct population of wild horses survived in Yakutia until 5,200 years ago," said Ludovic Orlando, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Thus 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 the 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 findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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