Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Let the Earth Decide

Sunrise: White Pine between The Birches at Ravenseyrie

"To know the pine, go to the pine.  To know the bamboo, go to the bamboo."

Since the first days of taxonomic records (esteemed evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr credits Aristotle with being the progenitor of taxonomic classification), it seems there have been conflicting opinions regarding whether horses roaming the landscapes were truly wild or represented feral landraces derived from domestic stock.  Early study relied upon anecdotal accounts, ethological observations, morphological comparisons, cursory dissection, i.e. that which could be seen and experienced externally or with superficial anatomy, and most of the time taking into account the habitat where one's subject was originally found.  Present day study gives itself almost entirely over to the internal characteristics of the equine genome.  What once was the authorship of philosophers, naturalists and field biologists is supplanted now by discoveries being made in the "sexy" domain of molecular genetics.

Beautiful light over the Twinravens range where our Sorraia mares now live.

It has been nearly a decade since I felt the "call" to assist in the preservation of the Sorraia and Sorraia Mustang horses.  I was naively oblivious when I first began to study more intricately the history and biology of these enigmatic equines that there are such conflicting perceptions of where this Tarpan-type horse fits into the overall understanding of wild horses.  I continue to research and evaluate what others have to say regarding the Sorraia, the Tarpan and other present day equines that bear the characteristics of those evocative cave paintings rendered by prehistoric humans, but I no longer believe there will be a unified consensus of the important role this type of horse plays in conservation paradigms.  What is particularly bothersome, however, is that the Sorraia (whose recovery from near extinction is remarkably similar to that of the Konik horse) is too frequently erroneously discounted as being a repository of ancient wild horse genetics based on limited interpretations of phylogenetic research (Lira, et. al, 2009).

The Sorraia filly, Esperanda...looking like she is stalking prey.

There are enough problems with using molecular genetics to prove or disprove ancestral relatedness (Hillis1987, Roger & Hug 2006, Grechko 2012, Moreira & Phillippe 2000, Cummings & Meyer 2006, Zander 2013, Weins 2005 to name a few...) that I find it inappropriate for assumptions to be made about the Sorrraia's origins based on this alone.  I am especially flummoxed that most recently the Sorraia has been overlooked as a candidate for rewilding programs taking place in Europe.  (Linnartz & Meissner, 2014)   This unfortunate situation is something I am looking into, for I find it unfathomable that the Sorraia has been so inappropriately marginalized, when they (and their Sorraia Mustang counterparts) meet the criteria listed in the Rewilding Horses in Europe / Background and Guidelines document and have proven themselves in semi-wild environments (Vale de Zebro/Portugal) and (Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve/Canada).  There may be no more horse type in need of a boost from inclusion in rewilding programs than the Sorraia and Sorraia mustang who continue to be precariously close to extinction, moreso than any other wild horse type listed in the document cited above. 

Full sisters Altavida and Pinoteia (by Sorraia stallion Altamiro) with their dam, Bella, on the right 

Whether or not it represents a "prehistoric relic", a "true wild" horse, or a "feralized manmade breed" matters very little to those Sorraias that are living in the wilderness.  They don't care about their past, nor do they worry what scientists and conservationists think of them...they live in the now and they dance among the myriad of wild things that know them as equals in their shared habitat.  The grasses don't need a consensus, the wind blowing over lichen covered rocks aren't conflicted in their appraisal of the equines galloping by and the Ravens flying overhead look upon them as blessed large herbivores restored to their rightful place.  Let the Earth decide such things, not the scientists.  What lives and thrives and in due course dies in the wilderness spaces of our Great Mother Earth (and if given enough habitat for its need can carry on without the persistent manipulations of humans) sings the song of a the "wild", irregardless of initial origins.

Ravens in the Zen Elm at Ravenseyrie...and a fantastic sky!

While many humans seem to find it fascinating to create classifications (and make life altering decisions) based upon the extrapolations of computers analyzing data extracted from molecules, believing this shines a bright light upon what living organisms truly represent, there will always be those who see the limitations to such classifications.  Perhaps as never before, 17th century haiku master, Matsuo Basho's words (quoted at the top of this journal entry) provide us with a simpler, more direct, more holistic and more reliable way of coming to know non-human entities.  "To know the pine, go to the pine" know the wild horse, go to the horses living in the wilderness...they tell us more about what it is to be wild than do historical texts or phylogenetic data.

Wintering well, Sorraia stallion, Altamiro of the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve, Manitoulin Island

Even that old horse
is something to see this
snow-covered morning

Sorraia bachelors running for the shelter of the forest during a snow squall at Ravenseyrie


--Ancient DNA reveals traces of Iberian Neolithic and Bronze Age lineages in modern Iberian horses, Lira, et. al, 2009

--Molecular Versus Morphological Approaches to Systematics, Hillis, D. 1987

—The origin and diversification of eukaryotes: problems with molecular phylogenetics and molecular clock estimation, Roger, Hug, 2006

—The Problems of Molecular Phylogenetics with the Example of Squamate Reptiles; Mitochondrial DNA Markers, Grechko, V., 2012

—Molecular phylogeny: pitfalls and progress, Moreira, D., Phillippe, H.,2000

—Magic bullets and golden rules: data sampling in molecular phylogenetics, Cummings, M.P., Meyer, A., 2006

—A Framework for Post-Phylogenetic Systematics, Zander, R.H. 2013

—The Role of Morphological Data in Phylogeny Reconstruction, Wiens, J.,2004

—Rewilding Horses in Europe, Linnartz, L., Meissner, R., 2014

Sorraia colts playing boy games as the snow falls

Ravenseryie Sorraia Mustang Mares on the Twinravens range, Tehkummah, Manitoulin Island


jean l. said...

On this last day of year 2014 good'old Lynne is back.

Anonymous said...

This blog has a lot of technical things I do not completely understand but all is very interesting.


Don'Qui said...

read it and "wept"
but not all think like the european rewilders based on a one-eyed-view, like in this article :

this is what the scientific paper by Pruvost et Al. (2011) says : "It is likely that dun dilution was present in predomestic horses as it is for example in modern Przewalski horses. However, because the dun mutation has not yet been identi!ed, we cannot distinguish between dun and nondun horses at the moment."

and :
"Predomestic horses inhabited, in vast numbers,large areas of Eurasia, and some extant species that still occupy a similarly large area, such as gray wolves, are also found in different
color morphs. It is therefore not entirely surprising that not all wild horses shared the bay–dun or black–dun phenotypes.
Moreover, previous studies suggested that morphological—and
genetic—variability was much larger in Pleistocene animal populations compared with their modern counterparts (30–32), and
it is likely that this increased variability extended to color phenotypes as well. However, the overall picture still supports the
notion that arti!cial selection was the driving force behind the
rapid increase of coat-color variation in domestic animals and
resulting in their remarkable modern variability."

luckily not everyone is sharing that strange view of the (mostly dutch) rewildingbunch, see fi. the Breeding Back Blog, where the blogger states this in a comment : "Daniel Foidl has left a new comment on the post "Examining a Pleistocene Wild horse's body conforma...":

That study says nothing new, actually. What authors of that European Wildlife article do not see is that the study says nothing about the dun locus, and without that information we cannot say whether the horses were in fact bay dun (like the przewalski) or bay. I - and I bet most scientists - am sure that these pleistocene wild horses had the dun colouration. But I didn't expect this article to be objective, since these organizations are promoting the Exmoor pony and trying to diminish the Konik, I don't understand why these organizations cannot effort an objective take-on."

there is at least one commercial genetic labo that claims to have found the locus for DUN, this is still under discussion and so far I have not found any recent scientific paper on the net that claims the same. There was a study by dr. Cieslak but he looked for dun on the same locus that is responsable for "lavender" in chickens, erroneously starting from the point that DUN is a dilution of black pigment (which it is probably not !)

Lynne Gerard said...

Hello, Peter!

That first link is a real "piece of work" and deplorable in how it aims to mislead by appearing to have revealed something scientifically new that erases long held understandings of wild horse types...and not even providing an official reference citation for the so-called study. A search for this "study" (Wild Horse and Aurochs: key species for landscape formation) said to have been co-authored by Miloslav Jirků, turns up nothing, suggesting this study has not been peer reviewed or published. It certainly has been orchestrated to appear authoritative, but seems to me to be a push of an erroneous opinion.

You are right to raise again the limitations of the colour research, since there has not yet been an unraveling of the mystery of dun and grulla. I have those other papers you brought up in my library, so am familiar with them.

Nice to know you still read this blog! Thank you!
And thank you to jean l. and M also for reading and commenting!