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Equus (genus) facts for kids

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The natural history of horses (Plate XXII) cropped

Equus is a genus of mammals in the family Equidae. It includes horses, asses, and zebras. Equus is the only living (extant) genus of horses, and there are seven living species. They are the one-toed horses, and are adapted for living in various types of grasslands.

The term equine refers to any member of this genus. Equus has many extinct species known only from fossils. The genus most likely originated in North America and spread quickly to the Old World. Equines are odd-toed ungulates with slender legs, long heads, relatively long necks, manes (erect in most subspecies) and long tails. All species are herbivorous, and mostly grazers with simpler digestive systems than ruminants. They can live on low-quality vegetation.

Feral equine populations are widespread, but wild equines are found only in Africa and Asia. Wild populations may have a harem system. In this case one adult male or stallion, several females or mares and their young or foals. Otherwise they live in a territory where males control territories with resources that attract females. In both systems, females take care of the foals, though males may play a role as well. Equines communicate with each other visually and vocally. Human activities have threatened wild equine populations and out of the seven living species, only the plains zebra is still widespread and abundant.

The one-toed horses of the grasslands developed from smaller three-toed horses which lived more in forests and wooded savannahs. Before the coming of humans, horses were much more varied and widespread, though the number of species is not known.


Physical characteristics

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From left to right: a cranium, a complete skeleton, a left forefoot frontal, and a left forefoot lateral from a Grévy's zebra.

Equines have significant differences in size, though all are characterized by long heads and necks. Their slender legs support their weight on one digit (which evolved from the middle digits). The Grévy's zebra is the largest wild species, standing up to 13.2 hands (54 inches, 137 cm) and weighing up to 405 kg (890 lb). Domesticated horses have a wider range of sizes. Heavy or draft horses are usually at least 16 hands (64 inches, 163 cm) high and can be as tall as 18 hands (72 inches, 183 cm) and weigh from about 700 to 1,000 kilograms (1,500 to 2,200 lb). Some miniature horses are no taller than 30 inches (76 cm) in adulthood. Sexual dimorphism is limited in equines. Equines are adapted for running and for traveling over long distances. Their dentition is adapted for grazing; they have large incisors that clip grass blades and highly crowned, ridged molars well suited for grinding. Males have spade-shaped canines ("tushes"), which can be used as weapons in fighting. Equines have fairly good senses, particularly their eyesight. Their moderately long, erect ears are movable and can locate the source of a sound.

A dun-colored coat with primitive markings that include a dorsal stripe and often leg striping and transverse shoulder stripes reflect the wildtype coat and are observed in most wild extant equine species. Only the mountain zebra lacks a dorsal stripe. In domestic horses, dun color and primitive markings exist in some animals across many breeds. The purpose of the bold black-and-white striping of zebras has been a subject of debate among biologists for over a century, but recent (2014) evidence supports the theory that they are a form of protection from biting flies. These insects appear to be less attracted to striped coats and, compared to other wild equines, zebras live in areas with the highest fly activity. With the exception of the domestic horses, which have long manes that lay over the neck and long tail hair growing from the top of the tailhead or dock, most equines have erect manes and long tails ending in a tuft of hair. The coats of some equine species undergo shedding in certain parts of their range and are thick in the winter.

Ecology and daily activities

Group of onagers grazing

Extant wild equines have scattered ranges across Africa and Asia. The plains zebra lives in lush grasslands and savannas of Eastern and Southern Africa, while the Mountain zebra inhabits mountainous areas of southwest Africa. The other equine species tend to occupy more arid environments with more scattered vegetation. The Grévy's zebra is found in thorny scrubland of East Africa, while the African wild ass inhabits rocky deserts of North Africa. The two Asian wild ass species live in the dry deserts of the Near East and Central Asia and the Przwelski's wild horse's habitat is the deserts of Mongolia. Only the range of the plains and Grévy's zebras overlap. In addition to wild populations, domesticated horses and donkeys are widespread thanks to humans. In certain parts of the world, populations of feral horses and feral donkeys exist, which are descended from domesticated animals that were released or escaped into the wild.

Equines are monogastric hindgut fermenters. They prefer to eat grasses and sedges, but may also consume bark, leaves, buds, fruits and roots if their favored foods are scarce, particularly asses. Compared to ruminants, equines have a simpler and less efficient digestive system. Nevertheless, they can subsist on lower quality vegetation. After food is passed though the stomach, it enters the sac-like cecum. where cellulose is broken down by micro-organisms. Fermentation is quicker in equines than in ruminants; 30–45 hours for a horse compared to 70–100 hours for a cow. Equines may spend 60-80 percent of their time feeding, depending on the availability and quality of vegetation. In the African savannas, the plains zebra is a pioneer grazer; mowing down the upper, less nutritious grass canopy and preparing the way for more specialized grazers like blue wildebeests and Thomson's gazelles which depend on shorter and more nutritious grasses below.

Wild equines may spend seven hours a day sleeping. During the day, they sleep standing up while at night they lie down. They regularly rub against trees, rocks and other objects and roll in around in dust for protection against flies and irritation. Except the mountain zebra, wild equines can roll over completely.

Social behavior

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Plains zebra group

Equines are social animals with two basic social structures. Horses, plains zebras and mountain zebras live in stable, closed family groups or harems consisting of one adult male, several females and their offspring. These groups have their own home ranges which overlap and they tend to be nomadic. The stability of the group remains even when the family stallion dies or is displaced. Plains zebra groups gather into large herds and may create temporarily stable subgroups within a herd, allowing individuals to interact with those outside their group. Among harem-holding species, this behavior has only otherwise been observed in primates like the gelada and the hamadryas baboon. Females of harem species benefit as males give them more time for feeding, protection for their young, as well as protection from predators and harassment by outside males. Among females in a harem, a linear dominance hierarchy exists based on the time at which they join the group. Harems travel in a consistent filing order with the high-ranking mares and their offspring leading the groups followed by the next highest ranking mare and her offspring and so on. The family stallion takes up the rear. Social grooming (which involves individuals rubbing their heads against each other and nipping with the incisors and lips) is important for easing aggression and maintaining social bonds and status. Young of both sexes leave their natal groups as they mature; females are usually abducted by outside males to be included as permanent members of their harems.

In both equine social systems, excess males gather in bachelor groups. These are typically young males who are not yet ready to establish a harem or territory. With the plains zebra, the males in a bachelor group have strong bonds and have a linear dominance hierarchy. Fights between males usually occur over estrus females and involve biting and kicking.


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Przewalski's horses interacting

When meeting for the first time or after they have separated, individuals may greet each other by rubbing and sniffing their noses followed by rubbing their cheeks. They then may rub and press their shoulders against each other and rest their heads on one another. This greeting is usually performed among harem or territorial males or among bachelor males playing.

Equines produce a number of vocalizations and noises. Loud snorting is associated with alarm. Squealing is usually made when in pain, but bachelors will also squeal while play fighting. The contact calls of equines vary from the whinnying and nickering of the horse, the barking of plains zebras, and the braying of asses and Grévy's zebras. Equines also communicate with visual displays and the flexibility of their lips allows them to make complex facial expressions. Visual displays also incorporate the positions of the head, ears and tail. An equine may signal an intention to kick by laying back its ears and sometimes lashing the tail. Flattened ears, bared teeth and abrupt movement of the heads may be used as threatening gestures, particularly among stallions.

Reproduction and parenting

Grevy Zebra
Grévy's zebra foal

Length of gestation varies by species, it is roughly 11 to 13 months, and most mares will come into estrus again within a few days after foaling, depending on conditions. Usually, only a single foal is born, which is capable of running within an hour. Within a few weeks, foals will attempt to graze, but may continue to nurse for 8–13 months. Species in arid habitats, like the Grévy's zebra, have longer nursing intervals and do not drink water until they are three months old.

Among harem-holding species, foals are cared for mostly by their mothers, but if threatened by predators, the entire group works together to protect all the young. The group forms a protective front with the foals in the center and the stallion will rush at predators that come too close. In territory-holding species, mothers may gather into small groups and leave their young in "kindergartens" under the guard of a territorial male while searching for water. Grévy's zebra stallions may look after a foal in his territory to ensure that the mother stays, even though it may not be his.

Human relations

Pottery Horse and chariot Late Bronze Age, NAMA 080847
Bronze Age pottery depicting horse and chariot

The earliest archaeological evidence for the domestication of the horse comes from sites in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, dating to approximately 4000-3500 BC. By 3000 BC, the horse was completely domesticated and by 2000 BC there was a sharp increase in the number of horse bones found in human settlements in northwestern Europe, indicating the spread of domesticated horses throughout the continent. The most recent, but most irrefutable, evidence of domestication comes from sites where horse remains were interred with chariots in graves of the Sintashta and Petrovka cultures c. 2100 BC. Studies of variation in genetic material shows that very few wild stallions, possibly all from a single haplotype, contributed to the domestic horse, while many mares were part of early domesticated herds.

The Przewalski's horse has been conclusively shown not to be an ancestor of the domestic horse, even though the two can hybridize and produce fertile offspring. The split between Przewalskii's horse and E. ferus caballus is estimated to have occurred 120,000– 240,000 years ago, long before domestication. Of the caballine equines, E. ferus, it is E. ferus ferus, also known as the European wild horse or "tarpan" that shares ancestry with the modern domestic horse. In addition, it has also been hypothesized that tarpans that lived into modern times may have been hybridized with domestic horses.

Archaeological, biogeographical, and linguistic evidence suggest that the donkey was first domesticated by nomadic pastoral people in North Africa over 5,000 years ago. The animals were used to help cope with the increased aridity of the Sahara and the Horn of Africa. Genetic evidence finds that the donkey was domesticated twice based on two distinct mitochondrial DNA haplogroups. It also points to a single ancestor, the Nubian wild ass. Attempts to domesticate zebras were largely unsuccessful, though Walter Rothschild trained some to draw a carriage in England.

Conservation issues

Przewalski's Horse at The Wilds
Captive Przewalski's horse

Humans have had a great impact on the populations of wild equines. Threats to wild equines include habitat destruction and conflicts with local people and livestock. Since the 20th century, wild equines have been decimated over many of their former ranges and their populations scattered. In recent centuries, two subspecies, the quagga and the tarpan, became extinct. Only the plains zebra remains numerous and widespread. The IUCN lists the African wild ass as critically endangered, the Grévy's zebra, mountain zebra and Przewalski's horse as endangered, the Onager as vulnerable, the kiang as lower risk and the plains zebra as least concern. The Przewalski's horse was considered to be extinct in the wild from the 1960s to 1996. However, following successful captive breeding, it has been reintroduced in Mongolia.

Feral horses vary in degree of protection and generate considerable controversy. For example, in Australia, they are considered a non-native invasive species, often viewed as pests, though are also considered to have some cultural and economic value. In the United States, feral horses and burros are generally considered an introduced species because they are descendants from domestic horses brought to the Americas from Europe. While they are viewed as pests by many livestock producers, conversely, there is also a view that E. ferus caballus is a reintroduced once-native species returned to the Americas that should be granted endangered species protection. At present, certain free-roaming horses and burros have federal protection as "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West" under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, and in Kleppe v. New Mexico, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the animals so designated were, as a matter of law, wildlife.

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