Extinct Zebra Subspecies Could Aid Equine Research

Extinct Zebra Subspecies Could Aid Equine Research

Researchers believe the revived quagga, seen here in a London zoo in 1870, could offer scientists some exciting equine research opportunities.

Photo: Frederick York

While it's not quite a real-life Jurassic Park scenario, researchers are currently working to bring the quagga—a type of South African zebra, extinct since the late 19th century—back to life. This revived subspecies could offer scientists some exciting equine research opportunities.

Stripes’ effects on flies and equine thermoregulation are among the studies on the scientific agenda with the “rebirth” of the quagga, which had stripes around the face, neck, and front upper back, said Peter Heywood, PhD, of the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry at Brown University in Providence, R.I. Heywood recently reported on “The Quagga Project”—the breeding project intended to bring the quagga back out of extinction.

The Quagga Project is benefiting from knowledge about the quagga subspecies gained through mitochondrial DNA analysis. Work with DNA obtained from taxidermied quaggas in European museums has revealed that this unique equid is not actually a separate species, but merely a subspecies of the plains zebra. The plains zebra—which often has fewer stripes than other types of zebras—is one of three zebras that resides in South Africa, Heywood said. DNA analysis suggests the quagga diversified from the plains zebra fairly recently—between 120,000 to 290,000 years ago. And this, he said, gives researchers hope that the quagga's genes might still be found in some of the plains zebras.

Interestingly, he added, despite the quagga’s partially solid coloring, DNA analysis showed that the species' coat pattern did not make it more “horselike,” genetically speaking.

Through careful selection of less-striped plains zebras, The Quagga Project has created a breeding program that now, four generations later, is producing animals with few stripes on their hindquarters. These “Rau quaggas”—named in honor of the main force behind the project, the late South African museum taxidermist Rienhold Rau—resemble the quaggas in some of the striping patterns but not in background coloration, Heywood said.

Work with DNA obtained from taxidermied quaggas in European museums has revealed that this unique equid is not actually a separate species, but merely a subspecies of the plains zebra.

Photo: Sarah Hartwell

“The lack of striping on the hindquarters and legs is evident,” he said in his paper. “But the background color of the hindquarters is not the brownish-red color of the extinct quagga.”

Even so, the Rau quaggas might serve science well, said Heywood. “Tsetse flies are a major problem (in some areas), and so I think Rau quaggas could have an important role in investigating whether they are more attracted to the stripes or to the solid color of the hindquarters (on the same individual),” he told The Horse. “This might help people design effective traps for tsetse (flies).”

Thermoregulation studies—investigations into how animals keep themselves cool—could also arise from this new subspecies, he said. “Rau quaggas could provide a model for studying possible differences in coat temperatures between the striped forequarters and the unstriped hindquarters,” he wrote.

The Rau quaggas will soon be introduced into the original quaggas' old habitats, he said, with hopes of restoring the lands to their former state. The quaggas in the areas maintained a specific balance of the fauna and flora which, since the extinction of the quagga due to human intervention, has become overgrown with trees and woody plants (including some non-native varieties). This, he said, is interesting not only from a scientific viewpoint but from a cultural one as well. “For many people in South Africa there is a strong desire to redress old wrongs,” he wrote. “This was a powerful aspect of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee set up after the return to democracy in 1994.”

But the old quagga is not yet forgotten and will undoubtedly continue to entice scientists with its possibilities, Heywood said. In particular, he said, there might be an interest in sequencing all or part of the nuclear genome of these extinct animals as genomic analysis techniques continue to improve. Comparisons between these quaggas and the modern Rau quaggas could lead to insight into an equid’s capacity to physiologically adapt to drought (a condition under which the extinct quagga thrived), he said.

The study, "The quagga and science: what does the future hold for this extinct zebra?" was published in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at home near Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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