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Endangered wild horses are taking up residence in deserted structures following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, and researchers say understanding their unique preference could help save the species.
Using camera traps established in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ), a 3,000 square kilometer (1,150 square mile) “no-man’s land” at the border of Belarus and Ukraine, researchers captured more than 11,000 images of rare Przewalski’s horses using abandoned structures as shelters, particularly barns. Equus ferus is believed to be the last remaining subspecies of wild horses, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“Our results indicate Przewalski’s horses routinely use abandoned structures in the CEZ,” said researcher James Beasley, from SREL and the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, in a statement. “As a result, these structures can serve as important focal points for research and management to obtain key demographic information such as age, sex ratio, population size and genetic structure.”
Though their severely fragmented population is increasing, it is believed there are fewer than 200 individuals in the wild. Reddish-brown and dark beige in color with distinct white bellies and muzzles, the species was brought to the CEZ around 15 years ago. Their numbers have doubled in size since 2008, but researchers say it is still too low to sustain a viable population.
“When the size of a population is reduced, it has lost a lot of natural variation,” said lead investigator Peter Schlichting. “The goal of conservation programs is to maintain as much diversity as possible and prevent inbreeding, ensuring a population can withstand changes in the environment and survive long term.”
The number of sightings differed depending on the season. During the winter, horses were recorded less than three dozen times at nine of 10 monitored sites. That number skyrocketed to 249 sightings at the eight monitored sites during the warmer months. The horses used dwellings just as those from 30 years ago had, breeding, sleeping, and potentially seeking refuge from insects during the summer months.
More than 100,000 residents were evacuated from the region now known as the CEZ after a flawed reactor design malfunctioned in combination with inadequately trained personnel, killing at least dozens of people from acute radiation poisoning, according to the World Nuclear Association. But Przewalski’s horses aren’t the first inhabitants to return to the region. Previous research finds similar conclusions: Wildlife in the region is thriving likely due to the fact that there are no humans inhabiting it. A study published earlier this year by the same researchers found that the CEZ is sustaining populations of wild animals. Camera traps at the time found 15 different vertebrates, including mice, raccoon dogs, wolves, American mink, and Eurasian otters, as well as tawny owls and white-tailed eagles. In the current study, researchers also reported finding several other species of mammals, from the brown hare and wild bird to moose and Eurasian lynx.
Future research may help scientists get an accurate count of the population and determine its genetic diversity in order to potentially expand protected boundaries for the horse species.