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Cold Weather Adaptations: Yakutian Horses Rapidly Evolve Defense Against Extremely Cold Temperatures

Nov 30, 2015 03:50 PM EST
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In eastern Siberia, temperatures can plummet to minus-70 degrees Celsius, making the country rank as one of the coldest regions in the Northern Hemisphere. However, Yakutian horses have adapted to the extremely cold temperatures in less than 800 years -- a blink of the eye in terms of evolutionary adaptations.  

In a recent study, researchers from the University of Copenhagen compared the complete genomes of nine living and two ancient Yakutian horses from Far East Siberia with the genomes of 27 modern domesticated horses.  Their genetic analysis sheds light on the winterized animals' origin, according to the university's news release.

Horses are essential to the survival and development of Yakut populations, who originally migrated to Far East Siberia in the 13th-15th century AD from Mongolia, and brought their relatively small horses with them. Among other attributes, the horses have the ability to locate and graze on vegetation hidden deep under snow mounds.

Fossil evidence of horses living in Yakutia date back 30,000 years, landing the animals in the Late Pleistocene. However, these ancient horses are not the ancestors of present-day Yakutian horses. Instead, the horses that Yukut people ride today, and those they have ridden in the course of their history, are related to domesticated horses from Mongolia. Therefore, the cold-weather characteristics seen in modern Yakutian horses represents one of the fastest examples of adaptation within mammals.   

"We know now that the extinct population of wild horses survived in Yakutia until 5,200 years ago. Thus it extended from the Taymir peninsula to Yakutia, and probably all across the entire Holarctic region," Dr. Ludovic Orlando, one of the study researchers, explained in a news release. "In Yakutia, it may have become extinct prior to the arrival of 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."

Researchers concluded that all traits now seen Yakutian horses are the product of very fact adaptive processes. This highlights how fast evolution can occur when selective pressures, such as climate, threaten a species' survival.

Their study was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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