Rare Donkey Born Through Embryo Transfer in Australia

Monash University reproductive research is helping save the world's most endangered donkey breed.
In a world first, a rare and prehistoric-looking Poitou donkey foal has been born to a surrogate Standardbred horse after embryo transfer from the biological mother, who was bred by artificial insemination.

The foal brings to only three the number of Poitou donkeys in Australia. The foal was born three weeks ago under the guidance of Angus McKinnon, BVSc, MSc, Dipl. ACT, Dipl. ABVP, an honorary research fellow at Monash University's Institute of Reproduction and Development (MIRD), and co –author of Equine Reproduction.

McKinnon says the horse has adjusted well to her unusual-looking foal and is nurturing it as any mother would its natural offspring.

The female donkey foal was born to a Standardbred mare at the Goulburn Valley Equine Hospital, near Shepparton. A breeding pair of Poitou donkeys brought to Australia by Yarra Glen couple Ron and Dianne Condon, produced the embryo.

While the hospital is a world leader in the field and performs more than 150 embryo transfers a year, this is the first time an endangered equine species has been successfully bred in a surrogate—and one of very few donkeys born from embryo transfer into horses anywhere in the world.

McKinnon said the embryo transfer was performed because the natural mother was suffering leg problems and it was uncertain if she would carry a foal to term.

The Poitou donkey—which originated in France—is the largest, hairiest, and most endangered species of donkey in the world. Some historians believe, judging from ancient drawings, that Poitou existed when the Romans occupied France in the first century BC.

However, numbers of the donkeys fell dramatically last century and there are now believed to be fewer than 200 registered Poitou donkeys in the world.

The Condons, who breed alpacas on their Victorian farm, sought assistance from McKinnon and the hospital to assist in producing a foal after they became aware of the plight of the breed during a trip to the U.S.

"They are such beautiful creatures and we just fell in love with them—and then after we did some research and discovered how endangered they were, thought we'd help out with building up the gene pool," Mrs. Condon said.

McKinnon said the successful embryo transfer has huge implications for the breeding of other rare species.

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