Welcome to the Przewalski's Horse Diary, where you will find regular updates on two Przewalski’s horses born in 2008 at the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia. A filly was born June 27, and a colt was born July 1.
The entries are contributions of our intern, Amy Flaggs, a second year veterinary medicine student at the Virginia–Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, Blacksburg, Virginia; a graduate student at the University of Maryland–College Park, Wynne Collins, also a board certified theriogenologist (specialist in clinical animal reproduction); and the animal management staff. We hope you enjoy it.
If you have questions or comments, please contact Budhan Pukazhenthi.
We have some very sad news. The male foal, Mason, died at CRC on Friday, Jan. 30 due to a fractured neck. We don’t yet know the cause of the injury. Staff who were watching him closely moments before his death noticed no unusual behavior that would have caused the injury.
Staff directed the colt into a chute system leading into a trailer that would transport him and a six-month-old filly to a new pasture on Friday afternoon. He walked onto the trailer—as he had many times before—without any signs of stress or injury. Following protocol, staff checked on the foals a few minutes after they entered the trailer. Staff found the colt unconscious, but still breathing. They quickly transported him to the Center’s veterinary hospital where veterinarians attempted to resuscitate him, but he died a short while later. A subsequent necropsy report showed that the colt had fractured the fourth cervical vertebra in his neck.
The filly, Anne, that was also being transported wasn’t injured and is in good health.
It is getting cold in Front Royal at last and the foals are growing long shaggy coats in preparation for winter. They look more like little bear cubs rather than wild horses. Their long coats help keep them warm in the winter, especially in their native climate of Mongolia where it gets as cold as - 45 degrees Fahrenheit! In Mongolia, where reintroduced populations of Przewalski’s horses live, they will grow even longer coats in the winter months.
Another way Przewalski’s horses survive the winter is by building up fat stores in the summer months, when food is plentiful. They have slower metabolisms than many domestic horses so that they can live on smaller amounts of food in the winter, when food is much scarcer. As a result, animal management and nutritionists at the Conservation and Research Center have to balance the diet of the Przewalski’s horses in order to keep them at a healthy weight.
We are very thankful this Thanksgiving for our two furry foals this year and we hope that you and yours have a very happy Thanksgiving!
This has been an exciting month for the two foals because they have both gotten names! Traditionally, animal keepers name new babies at CRC, but the arrival of the two new P horse foals was a special occasion and, therefore, deserved special names.
Our colt is now called Mason. The story behind his name is that the National Zoological Park has recently formed a partnership with George Mason University. In the coming years, GMU will build a campus in Front Royal where students will study conservation science with our scientists. GMU has already started a semester where students study at the Conservation and Research Center. These students learn from GMU professors as well as scientists at CRC.
Our little filly is Anne, in honor of a visit by Wayne Clough, the Secretary of the Smithsonian. The filly was named Anne after the Secretary’s wife. Secretary Clough arrived recently to fill his post. We hope for his long and successful tenure.
The foals got to meet several new people the other day because a tour group came up to Slate Hill barn just to see the newest horsy arrivals. It was quite exciting for the horses because the foals usually only see the keepers and the research staff. These people stayed longer than the staff usually does and brought apple biscuits to entice the foals and their mothers to the gate. At first, the foals did not know what to think of all these extra people. But once their mothers relaxed and approached the fence for apple biscuits, they began showing off
Grants and private donates fund much of the research at CRC. The Przewalski’s horse project, for instance, is funded by Morris Animal Foundation and by generous gifts from people in the community. Many projects at CRC would not occur without the kindness of people that are passionate about wildlife conservation and the Przewalski’s horse project is a perfect example of that.
It’s quiet up at Slate Hill barn now that we’ve stopped the mare research program for the year. The foals still play with each other regularly. They are starting to look like teenagers with gangly legs and shaggy coats. It is normal for young foals’ coats to change, which makes them quite funny looking for a few weeks. The filly is still the more inquisitive of the two while the colt is definitely the shy one. He sticks close to his mother’s side while the filly tends to be brave and approach people more closely.
Even though we’re not collecting samples the mares until next spring, a lot of work is still going on in the research labs at CRC. Wynne Collins, a PhD student here at CRC, still has hundreds of urine samples to analyze. She will continue to run samples all the winter until we begin sampling again in early spring.
There have been a lot of changes lately in the herd, and the foals have taken notice. We’ve moved some of the mares in the neighboring pasture on Slate Hill, where most of the mares usually live. These mares have gone to live with stallions in different locations around CRC for breeding. Because a Species Survival Plan manages the Przewalski’s horse population, a computer determines who should breed with whom based on the genetic makeup of the mares and stallions. This is how the two foals’ mothers were chosen to travel from Europe to the U.S.A. to breed.
Another change is that the intern, Amy Flaggs, who worked with the Przewalski’s horse all summer has gone back to vet school at Virginia Tech. Our internship program at CRC has trained hundreds of college students like Amy over the years. During the four years we’ve been working on the Przewalski’s horse project, we have trained seven interns. Thanks to their time at CRC, many of them have now moved on to vet school or graduate school.
The mares are eager today when they see the intern coming into the yard. Since the interns don’t come around as often for urine collections, the mares miss their daily apple biscuits that they receive as a reward after they urinate. They quickly finish munching on the hay that they have in their mouth and Maja and Emma walk off in different directions to find the perfect place to pee. Interns collected urine as part of an ongoing study at the Conservation and Research Center. As part of Wynne Collins’s doctoral research, she assesses hormone levels in urine in all the mares at CRC. Because hormone products are detectable in urine, this is a very convenient way to track hormone levels in the wild, where it is difficult to take daily blood samples.
While the mares are distracted, the foals are lazily relaxing under the hayrack among the fallen pieces of hay. This is the best place in the yard to rest because it’s a sunny spot well padded by the excess hay the horses drop on the ground. The foals seem more tired today than usual but this is normal for such young animals spend so much of their energy on growing.
The weather here at CRC feels like mid-autumn even though it is obviously still summer. The foals love it. They play and frolic more often these days since the cool weather does not faze them as much as the hot weather did last week. The colt chases after the filly who is much faster than he is, but he is determined to catch up to her. After their short play sessions, they take time to bond by grooming each other’s mane. Mutual grooming is common in equids, where each horse chews the other by scratching the other with their teeth. This form of bonding helps maintain the social order in the equid harem.
The mares watch from the hayrack on the other side of the yard. Nursing the foals makes the mares very hungry since making milk requires a lot of energy so it is normal for the mothers to want to be around the hay rack and graze more often. What people usually don’t know is that lactating animals (and people) require three times more energy than they do when they’re actually pregnant.
It is a very hot day at CRC, so the mares prefer to stay in the shade that of the barn. The foals play behind the barn while the mares linger close to the water trough. When it was time to move out to pasture, the mares refuse to budge so the foals and their moms get a reprieve from the hot sun for the day.
Today the mares seem much less worried about their young foals. The foals are running into and out of their mothers’ sight. They run laps around the yard, dart into the barn for a short drink of water and then rush back out to continue racing and chasing each other. The mares watch from a distance at the hay rack as their foals play happily together.
The filly continues to bond with her mother Maja, and started to groom her. Maja had been grooming the filly since birth, but it is a unique sight to see the filly initiate social grooming at such a young age. Maja leans down her head, so that the filly can reach the back of her neck. Then, she allows the filly to nibble on the hairs at the base of the mane. This form of grooming allows the mare and foal to bond more closely.
The foals are starting to interact with other horses in neighboring yards. Maja brings her filly up to the fence that separates their yard from a yard that contains seven other Przewalski’s horse mares. The seven mares line up along the fence line to meet the young foals. (Amusingly, the foals' grandmother, Stormy, and great-grandmother, Misha, live in this yard.) The mares enjoy watching the foals play and run around the yard together so much that they stand there most of the morning being entertained.
Going out onto pasture is still the most exciting time of the day. The foals really enjoy the extra space and the soft grass beneath their hooves. Once we open the, they are always the first out in the pasture, with the mothers following at a more sedate pace.
Maja and Emma are now starting to work together to care for their foals. In the morning, they always stand side-by-side with their foals lying safely between the watchful moms. Today, the foals are actually starting to try new foods, which is normal for a young foal. The filly attempts to chew on short branches that have fallen from the trees in the yard; she splays her long legs as far apart as possible in order to reach down and pick it up with her mouth. After munching the branch in her mouth a couple of times she realizes that it is not the tastiest item in the yard and returns to bug her mother Maja.
The mothers have finally thrown caution to the wind and are allowing the two young foals to play with one another without interruption. The filly and colt play a rousing game of bite tag, where one foal chases the other until they are able to tag the other foal by taking a little nibble out of their opponent’s rear or flank. The game goes on for hours with short timeouts for nursing.
After the long holiday weekend, the recently united group is getting along well. The moms and foals intermingle more each day. Over the weekend, they got access to a pasture that adjoins their yard, but the mothers seemed very hesitant to take their foals out on grass. After some coaxing with grain pellets, the mothers (with their foals trailing behind) followed one of the zookeepers onto the pasture. The filly was the first to display her excitement. She ran constant laps around the entire pasture as if she was the leading horse at the racetrack. Her mother Maja chased after her for one lap and then gave up, choosing to munch on the lush grass instead. Emma, however, was being very protective of the colt. After he made a couple of attempts to go play, he realized that sticking by mom’s side was what she wanted.
Today, the CRC veterinarian declared the colt strong and healthy enough to join the rest of the herd. Staff open the gates to allow Emma and her colt to join Maja and her filly. During the reintroduction there is much sniffing, flaring of nostrils, snorting, whinnying, and running around the new yard. The colt, unsure of his surroundings, remains close to his mother, but Maja’s filly is so excited to see a new potential playmate that she darts around the yard in an attempt to say hello and get a better look at the colt. National Zoo photographers were present, and captured many wonderful pictures to document the successful introduction.
This morning, keepers found a handsome colt in the foaling yard this morning with Emma. By the time they got there, he was already up and walking around after his mother. He is a very healthy foal. Emma has proved to be a wonderful mother, standing over him while he lays on the soft grass. She seems anxious for him to meet Maja and her filly, and keeps him close to the fence line that adjoins their yard. Like Maja’s filly, this new colt’s father is Frog, the highest ranking breeding stallion on the Przewalski’s horse Species Survival Plan.
Today is the first day that Maja and her filly are allowed outside since the birth a couple of days ago. As the barn doors are opened, two other members of Maja’s herd greet her and the new foal. At first, the filly sticks close to Maja. But, as she grows more comfortable, she emits a happy whinny and springs straight up into the air, like a jack-in-the-box, apparently overwhelmed with the excitement of it all. This appears to disgruntle her mother, who can’t match the youngster’s boundless energy. Maja eventually gives up trying and turns her attention to munching the grass. Being a mother for the first time is certainly a lot of work! But Maja seems to be catching on fast. Meanwhile, keepers and scientists at CRC are patiently awaiting the arrival of Emma’s foal.
We confirmed that the foal is a lovely little baby girl. Maja is being a wonderful, protective mother to the young filly. She keeps her distance from anyone that enters the barn and is very careful to stay between the visitor and her foal. However, we were able to get a peek at the filly and even get her to pose for some pictures! She is a bit excitable, and, every now and then, suddenly launches into an attempt to run around the barn and get a better feel for her long legs.
Scientists, zoo keepers, and interns arrived at Slate Hill barn on the Friday morning to find a beautiful foal in the yard wobbling along behind her proud mother, Maja. The barn was especially busy that morning with CRC scientists busy at work on reproductive research. The birth of the new arrival is a long-awaited event for the National Zoological Park.The last Przewalski’s horse birth at CRC was in 2000. The mother is Maja, one of the two mares that were transported from Germany last year to increase the genetic diversity of the breeding herd at CRC, and the father is Frog, the highest ranking breeding stallion on the Przewalski’s horse Species Survival Plan and, coincidentally, the last foal born at CRC. This young foal was quite a star today as many came by to see this important new arrival.