Braiding Pony Tales: The Trouble with Bachelors
Updated: Jul 25, 2020
One half of my job here at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute involves working on Przewalski’s Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii). This is the only truly wild horse species in the world. Sorry if you are a fan of mustangs in the US or brumbies in Australia, those are just regular domestic horses that went feral. I talked about them a bit in a previous post. But in short they used to range all over Europe and Asia but went extinct in the wild in the late 60’s. In the early 90’s they were successfully re-introduced to the wild in northern China and Mongolia where we study their movement behaviour and ecology by tracking them with GPS collars.
We have successfully collared quite a few mares and this is great because of the social structure of the P-horse where a stallion guards a harem of females so if you have collared one individual you know where they all are.
However, the stallions are problematic. They don’t really tolerate the collars very well and they fight a lot, doing a lot of biting around the mane and neck area so the collars tend to break or they fall off. While collaring a mare in a stable harem gives you a good idea of where the stallion who is the boss of that harem is, without tracking stallions we can’t keep track of any social upheavals, or what the stallions get up to when they are not rounding up their females.
Even more intriguing is what the young bachelors are up to. These young guys are not strong enough to fight for their own harem so they wander about in the landscape usually in groups of 3-5 individuals, no doubt getting into all manner of adventures and merry japes that we know nothing about. Are they wandering further in search of new opportunities? Are they pushed away from waterholes dominated by mature stallions? Are there sneaky little ‘extra pair copulations’ going on when the stallion is just over the next hill?
In an attempt to answer some of these questions we are collaborating with our friends at The Wilds in Ohio to develop a new method of tracking male P-horses. Using methods that have been deployed on feral horses by researchers in Colorado, we are aiming to braid a GPS transmitter into the tail of the horse. The hope is to use a transmitter small enough to put on a bird (about 30-40g) and attach it to the tail by braiding, tying, and gluing it on there. P-horses are not dressage ponies and have different tails which might make braiding more difficult. Their tail hair is shorter and coarser and I have never even braided my own hair so there won’t be a lot of fancy French braiding going on and instead of ribbons cable ties may be involved somewhere.
The first step in the process is to see if the P-horses will tolerate anything at all attached to their tail. Before we go ahead and put a $4000 transmitter on there we want to be sure it is not going to get smashed against a tree or ripped out and stomped on. So I constructed some dummy transmitters that have the same size, weight and shape as the real ones, without the hefty price tag. The team at The Wilds have a few small bachelor herds that have provided us with the perfect crucible to test this system. Those young dudes kick seven shades of poop out of each other all the time so if it can survive in these groups it can survive anywhere.
I travelled down to Ohio with a team of Smithsonian vets in June. They were there to carry out AI and Semen collection and other gross stuff on the P-horses and I was there to braid their tails and give them a pretty new accessory. I managed to braid dummy transmitters into the tails of 4 males. My braiding skills were probably passable by the fourth one and even managed to draw a non-committal nod of approval from some expert tail braiders.
We have been videoing the horses to look for any changes in behaviour compared to non-tagged individuals and the good news is that they don’t seem to give a flying monkey poo about what is on their tails. From what we can tell they don’t even notice. One dummy transmitter has fallen out after nearly three weeks but that was the first one I worked on and I will bet that my crappy braiding is to blame rather than the horse. The rest of them are going strong and surviving the rough and tumble of bachelor life.
The next step is to test some real transmitters on our solo stallions here at SCBI. We know that the attachment method is looking good but now we want to see if a transmitter will actually function while being swished about all the time and if it will get enough light on the solar panels to charge. So it seems there is a lot more time staring at horse butts in my future. Hooray!