Can Extinct Horse Breeds Be Brought Back to Life?

Updated on February 11, 2017

Breyer model horse of Abaco Barb

Breyer model horse of Abaco Barb
Breyer model horse of Abaco Barb | Source

In 2015, the last Abaco Barb died. She was a 20-year-old infertile mare named Nunki. Before she died, skin samples were taken in case Nunki could be cloned in an effort to bring back the Abaco Barb. So far no cloning of Nunki has known to be attempted. Even if one eventually is foaled, bringing back an entire breed is not guaranteed since there is only Nunki’s set of genes in storage. A breed is considered critical when there are less than 500 horses left.

How Much Will This Cost?

Cloning just one horse costs about $150,000. Cloning 500 horses to try and bring back a breed would require a staggering amount of money, possibly even more than $150,000 each in order to tinker with the genes to make a wider genetic pool for the new/old horse breed to dive into. Breeding exact genetic clones would be the ultimate in in-breeding.

Of course, there is the old-fashioned way of trying to bring back an extinct breed – choose mares and stallions with the physical qualities that most resembled the Abaco Barb and breed them together and then breed the best of the foals together and so on. This cost is more of terms of time and resources. It also is a far more hit-and-miss affair (genetically) than cloning.

Hurdles Still To Overcome

Although the extinction of the Abaco Barb and the eminent extinction of dozens of other horse and pony breeds is sad, all of these breeds still contain the genetic material needed to recreate extinct breeds. The problems currently facing such a monumental task as recreating the Abaco Barb (besides financial) include:

  • How to alter genes in embryos to bring about the desired characteristics
  • Where to find surrogate mares
  • What to do with these surrogate mares when they can no longer have foals
  • What to do with the resurrected breed after they have become established. The Abacao Barb, for example, died out for many reasons, including an increase in the rate of infertility. The infertility is thought to be due to exposure to agricultural chemicals coating the island plants. However, there also could be a genetic component. Unless there is a fundamental shift in chemical-free agricultural practices (which do not seem to be forthcoming) then even releasing a herd of clones on Great Abaco Island will doom the breed to a second extinction.
  • Determining the long-term health effects of cloning in horses. Since cloning is so new, it is unknown if cloning shortens a horse’s life span as it did with Dolly the sheep. So far, the oldest cloned horse is the Quarter Horse mare Lynx Melody Too, foaled in 2007. Horses live an average of 30 years.

Breeds Are Not Species

At the end of the day, does being a purebred, even a resurrected purebred, add anything to the genetic table? Outside of a curiosity to see if recreating an extinct breed could be accomplished, there are little if any advantages for the cloned horses themselves. All breeds of horses and ponies, from the mighty Shire to the tiny miniature horse, all are part of the same successful species – Equus caballus.

So far the technology, money and resources needed to bring back a breed like the Abaco Barb do not exist. Even if they did, there is very little point in bringing back a breed unless we can ensure the individual horses will have full, happy and healthy lives. The world in its present state does not present such an environment. For now, bringing back an extinct breed is an interesting thought experiment and not much else.

Cloned Horses Now Compete

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