It’s always great news when an animal from an endangered species is born — each new birth is an important step toward saving them from extinction. But the arrival of one extremely rare horse has a futuristic twist.
This month, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park became the home to a young Przewalski’s horse, exciting news for a species that is extremely rare and endangered. But this foal, born in February, is no ordinary horse — he’s a clone.
Ollie, who was born in February, is the second successful clone of a Przewalski’s horse. The first, named Kurt, was born in August 2020 and also lives at San Diego Safari Park, according to a press release.
Their births — the result of a partnership between nonprofit Revive & Restore, the animal cloning company ViaGen Pets & Equine, and San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance — mark a major step in incorporating modern biotechnology to wildlife conservation, and are intended to help the genetic diversity of the Przewalski’s horse species.
Formerly extinct in the wild, the Przewalski’s horse has survived in recent decades thanks to breeding programs in zoos, which then reintroduce the horses to their native habitats in the grasslands of China and Mongolia. Considered to be the last truly wild horse, the Przewalski’s horse is shorter and stockier than domestic horses, with a height of about 48-56 inches.
According to the press release, nearly all the surviving horses are related to just 12 Przewalski’s horses born in native habitats, so greater genetic variation is needed.
Ollie and Kurt are both clones of a male Przewalski’s horse stallion whose living cell line was cryopreserved over 40 years ago. Scientists are able to create an embryo from these cells, and transfer them to a surrogate mother. The resulting birth is an exact genetic clone of the original cell donor.
According to Wired, scientists have long hoped that it could be a way to help conserve endangered species, ever since the breakthrough cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996. But the technology has rarely been used on endangered animals, and despite improvements the process has a low success rate.
But now, Kurt and Ollie are the first endangered mammals to be successfully cloned, giving hope that this could be a viable way to help endangered species.
“It’s certainly a milestone in conservation,” Oliver Ryder, director of conservation genetics at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, told Wired. “It offers a new chance for reducing extinction risk and preserving the genetic diversity of species.”
“It is an honor to have studied and worked with so many others on the conservation of this special animal and to see come alive the possibility of using advanced genetic and reproductive technologies to sustain resilient populations in human care and in their native habitat,” he said in the press release.
(Ollie is named in honor of Oliver Ryder; Kurt was named after his mentor Dr. Kurt Benirschke)
Ollie and his surrogate mother recently arrived at San Diego Safari Park, so he can live among other Przewalski’s horses and learn behavior. They will be temporarily secluded and kept from view of guests until he is ready to be introduced to the others of the species. His genetic twin Kurt has reportedly been learning the language of being a wild horse from a female companion named Holly.
“The plan is for Kurt and Ollie to become breeding stallions when they reach maturity at about 4 years of age,” the zoo said in a press release.
This is truly a technological breakthrough and could be the beginning of a new way to conserve endangered species. We hope Ollie and Kurt continue to thrive and play their part in ensuring this species’ survival.
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