Equus ferus ferus


Kingdom Animalia 


Image: Engraving by an artist called Borisov in 1841 of a Tarpan, a five month old colt. It is the only drawing of this horse subspecies known to have been made from life. Since this individual is a juvenile it looks less proportionate and substantial than would an adult. Its immaturity certainly accounts for its small tail and may explain the "frizzy" or half erect mane. (Bennett 1998)

This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to the European Union, Canada, the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.

Phylum Chordata 
Class Mammalia 
Order Perissodactyla
Suborder Hippomorpha
Family Equidae
Subfamily Equinae
Genus Equus
Species Equus ferus
Subspecies Equus ferus ferus
Authority Boddaert, 1785
English Name Tarpan, European Wild Horse, Eastern European Horse
Danish Name Tarpan, Europæisk Vildhest
Dutch Name Tarpan, Steppentarpan, Bostarpan, Europees Wild Paard
French Name Tarpan
German Name Tarpan, Steppentarpan, Waldtarpan, Europäisches Wildpferd
Hungarian Name Tarpán
Korean Name 타르판
Norwegian Name Tarpan, Europeisk Villhest
Russian Name Тарпан
Spanish Name Tarpan
Taxonomy The taxonomic position of the wild horse (Equus ferus) relative to the domesticated horse is still unresolved (Lau et al. 2008; Kavar and Dovč 2008), as well as the number of Equus ferus subspecies (Duncan 1992; Bennett & Hoffmann 1999; Wilson and Reeder 2005).

In 1784 Pieter Boddaert named the species Equus ferus, referring to Gmelin's description of this animal. Unaware of Boddaert's name, Helmut Otto Antonius, Director of the Scholbrunn Zoological Gardens in Vienna, Austria, catalogued and named the Tarpan as Equus gmelini in 1912, again referring to Gmelin's description. Since Antonius' name refers to the same description as Boddaert's it is a junior objective synonym. Even earlier, Linnaeus named the domestic horse Equus caballus in 1758. 

Nowadays we know that Equus ferus and Equus caballus belong to the same species, so conform to the Code of the International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature, the scientific name of the Tarpan Equus ferus changed into the name given by Linnaeus Equus caballus by Wilson and Reeder (1993). Some scientists had criticism on this change of the scientific name of the Tarpan or wild horse. These scientists wanted that there would be made an exception for domesticated animals. Gentry et al. (1996) asked the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature to use its plenary power to rule that the name for the wild species is not invalid by virtue of being antedated by the name based on the domestic form. The Commission has ruled in favour of the proposal and "conserved the usage of 17 specific names based on wild species, which are pre-dated by or contemporary with those based on domestic forms", confirming Equus ferus for the wild horse (International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature 2003). It has stipulated that ferus is not invalid, but has not specified explicitly what name is to be used for the species by those who consider Equus caballus and Equus ferus to be conspecific (Wilson and Reeder 2005).

Synonyms Equus caballus ferus (Boddaert, 1785), Equus equiferus Pallas, 1811, Equus sylvestris Brincken, 1828, Equus ferus sylvestris (Brincken, 1828), Equus caballus sylvestris (Brincken, 1828), Equus gmelini Antonius, 1912, Equus ferus gmelini (Antonius, 1912), Equus caballus gmelini (Antonius, 1912), and Equus gmelini silvatica Vetulani, 1927, Equus tarpan Pidoplichko, 1951.

Photo: as far as I know there exist only one photo of a live tarpan. This tarpan stallion was caught in 1866 and purchases by the zoo of Moscow, Russia. There is some doubt if this was pure tarpan. It had remarkably long manes. This animals is known as the "Tarpan of Kherson", named after the area it was caught. According to description it was dark mice grey coloured with black legs. It had also a dorsal stripe and weak striping on the forelegs. Its tail was cut by keepers. This tarpan died aged 21. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to the European Union, Canada, the United States and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.

The tarpan was about 130 cm high at the withers. It was mouse-grey in colour, with a well-developed black mid-dorsal stripe, partly falling mane, and a slightly concave facial profile. (Bennett & Hoffmann, 1999) The name 'tarpan' derived from the Turkmen language and means 'wild horse' (Markerink, 2002).

Range & Habitat

The tarpan once ranged throughout the steppe region of eastern Europe, in the western Eurasian steppe and forest-steppe zone (Bennett & Hoffmann, 1999). This horse seems to have inhabited both steppe and open forest environments (Groves, 1974). When the possible different European wild horse subspecies are considered to be one single European subspecies, it once ranged from southern France and Spain eastward to central Russia.

History & Population

We know from archaeological remains and cave paintings that wild horses have lived in Europe for a long time. Wild horses, probably several different subspecies, roamed the open plains of Europe, Asia, North America and North Africa during the late Pleistocene (Bagtache et al. 1984; Clutton-Brock 1999; Kavar and Dovč 2008). By the end of the last Ice Age the range of the wild horse was much reduced (Clutton-Brock, 1999; Kavar and Dovč 2008), probably due to the climatic and vegetational shift (e.g. forests grew) as well as an increase in the human population. North American wild horses became extinct around 10.500 BCE (Guthrie 2003; Kavar and Dovč 2008) and in the Near and Middle East wild horses disappeared a few thousand year ago (Bennett & Hoffmann 1999). Wild horses survived in Sweden until the early Holocene and may have existed in England at the time of the Roman invasion (Groves 1986; Bennett & Hoffmann 1999). Wild horses were known in the Rhineland until at least the 13th century (Bennett & Hoffmann 1999). In historic times only two subspecies survived, both in Eurasia: the tarpan (Equus ferus ferus) in Eastern Europe and the Mongolian wild horse or Przewalski's horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) in Mongolia (Groves 1986; Kavar and Dovč 2008).

Samuel Gottlieb Gmelin provided the first detailed of the tarpan. In 1769, Gmelin killed a stallion and two mares, together with a domestic mare that had run wild with the herd, and captured a hybrid and a purebred foal in the region of Bobrovsk, near Voronezh, Russia (Groves 1994; Suffolk Wildlife Trust 2009). The last tarpan herds greadually dwindled, because feral domestic horses bred with them, while peasants who tamed and crossbred them with their local domestic horses captured tarpans too (Suffolk Wildlife Trust 2009). Beside that, tarpans were extensively hunted.

Many of the last so-called tarpans were probably wild-domestic hybrids or even feral domestic horses. These hybrids or feral horses were sometimes seen as tarpans when sighted. Because of this it is not possible to determine its extinction date well. Different sources mention different extinction dates. 

In 1814, a tarpan was seen in Konigsberg, Lithuania (Groves, 1974; Levine 2006) and the forest populations in Latvia were extirpated in 1814 (Bennett & Hoffmann 1999). The last tarpans in the forests of Poland were sighted between 1810 and 1820 (Clutton-Brock 1992; Levine 2006; Pucek 1981). Supposedly, the last tarpan in the wild, a mare, died in the Tavrichesk steppe 35 km from Askaniya Nova in the Ukraine in December 1879 (Bennett & Hoffmann 1999; Day 1981; Suffolk Wildlife Trust 2009). It fell down a crevasse, while attempting to avoid capture (Suffolk Wildlife Trust 2009). It is claimed that the last tarpan went extinct in Poland in 1918 or 1919 (Kavar and Dovč 2008), apparently captive-bred animals were maintained on stud farms until that time (Bennett & Hoffmann 1999; Heptner et al. 1961).

Extinction Causes

The extinction of the tarpan was caused by the absorption into a growing domestic horse population and hunting of remaining wild tarpans (Bennett & Hoffmann 1999; Groves 1974; Lundholm 1949; Zeuner 1963).

Selective Breeding

The last tarpan with pure tarpan genes has disappeared, but many of the horses in Central Europe retained some tarpan genes, because these domestic horses or their ancestors were crossbred with the wild tarpan. In Poland these horses are called “koniks”, which means “small horse”, but refers to several breeds. These koniks show many primitive features, for example one breed has the dun coat and dorsal stripe, and are called “Bilgoraj koniks”. The Bilgoraj konik has become the target for scientists attempting to recreate the tarpan. The koniks are the direct descendents of the extinct tarpan. However, also other re-breeding attempts are known. The recreated wild horses are resistant to harshness of climate, a prolific breeder that rarely aborts, great fertility, a strong immune system, its wound heals without attention, it is used to foraging in the wild, and can live on next to nothing. However these recreations  resembles the extinct wild Tarpan in its skeleton, colour type, there is no genetic evidence that these modern "tarpans" are really the same as the extinct Tarpan.

Konik horse

Photo: Konik horses in nature reserve the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands. Photographed by GerardM and released under the GNU Free Documentation License. This and other images of the konik can be found at Wikimedia Commons.

Around 1780, the last tarpans in Poland were brought to the manor farm of the Zamojski counts in the town of Zwierzyniec near Biłgoraj. In 1806, the counts turned these tarpans over to local peasants. About 100 years later it was discovered by research that small primitive horses with many wild tarpan characteristics still survived in the area. In the 1920, these primitive horses drew the attention of Tadeusz Vetulani, a Jagiellonian University graduate subsequently a professor at Poznań University. He named these horses "Polish koniks". They were short, some 110–130 cm high at the shoulder, frequently having a dun (mouse-gray) coat and a dark stripe down their backs, and often striped limbs. Two koniks, a stallion called “Tref” and a mare called “Czajka”, even turned white in winter, but face, fetlocks, mane and tail retained the dark colour (Suffolk Wildlife Trust, 2009; Copland, 2003). In 1936, professor Tadeusz Vetulani set up a reserve in the Białowieża Forest National Park where he brought the Polish koniks most similar to the wild tarpan. Vetulani tried to demonstrate experimentally the sylvan origins of the Polish koniks in an attempt to breed back the tarpan to its original state. He hypothesized that a forest variety of the tarpan (Equus caballus gmelini Ant., forma silvatica Vet.) living in Poland, Lithuania and Prussia had split of from the steppe populations of Eastern Europe. During World War II, halve of these horse were transported to Germany and most of them became lost. In 1945, Vetulani found that only 15 Polish Koniks survived in Białowieża, but continued his breeding experiment. After his dead in 1952, most of his Polish koniks were moved to a forest reserve alongside an existing breeding farm in Popielno, where the experiment continued. On 1 January 1955, the entire stud in Popielno was turned over to the Polish Academy of Sciences. The Polish koniks in the reserve live in complete freedom and most hippologists agree that such reserve breeding is essential if the traits the Polish koniks inherited from their wild tarpan ancestors are to be preserved. The Popielno Research Station of the Polish Academy of Sciences maintains the most genetically diverse herd of koniks. Currently koniks are found in several other European countries, like in several nature reserves and parks in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Latvia. (Jaworski, 2007; Markerink, 2002; Volf, 1979; Vetulani, 1936)

Heck horse

Photo: Two Heck horses in the zoo of Stadt Haag, Austria. Photographed by Christian Jansky on 29 March 2007. This image has been released under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5 Licence.

The German zoologist and Director of the Berlin Zoo, professor Lutz Heck, and Heinz Heck who was working at the Tierpark Hellabrunn (Munich Zoo), started in the early 1930’s a selective breeding programme in the hope of bringing back the extinct tarpan (Bunzel-Drüke 2001). They crossbred Gotland horses, koniks, Iceland ponies and Przewalski’s horses (Bunzel-Drüke 2001; Heck & Heck 1934; Heck s.a.; Slob 1966). The first bred back "tarpan" or Heck horse, a colt, was born on 22 May 1933 at the Tierpark Hellabrunn in Munich, Germany (Oklahoma State University, 1998). These horses still survive as Heck Horses or German tarpans.

Hegardt or Stroebel's horse

In the mid-1960s, Harry Hegardt started in Redmond (Oregon, USA) a selective breeding project dedicated to recreate the extinct Tarpan from diluted genes still found in North American feral mustangs herds and in working horses on local ranches. He started to get the right colour, the right size and then he even started getting the stand-up mane. Harry Hegardt died in 1990. His herd of 20 horses were bought by Lenette and Gordon Stroebel who continued his project on their ranch in Prineville (Oregon, USA). They eventually named their ranch Genesis Equines. Like Hegardt, the Stroebels believe that strong Tarpan genes lie hidden in the wild mustang herds. That’s because those mustangs are descendants of horses that escaped from Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. It is assumed that the Spanish conquistadors took some horses with Sorraia (a primitive Iberian horse breed probably closely related to the tarpan) origins to the Americas, as there has been mtDNA evidence that has found Sorraian gentotypes in a couple of feral horse groups of western USA. The Stroebels capture feral horses from the wild, animals with characteristics of the extinct tarpan, and breed them to draw out these characteristics. The future of the herd is uncertain, depending on whether or not a suitable source of new genetic material is found, but the Stroebels are hopeful and proud of their little herd of unique horses. (Flaccus 2002; Richins 2006)

Museum Specimens

(Sub)fossil bones and skulls can be found in various European museums. The Moscow zoo had two tarpan stallions. Of one only the skull remains, and of the other, that was named Tarpan of Kherson, the skeleton remains.

Relatives The closest living relatives of the extinct tarpan are konik horses, Heck horses, Hucul ponies and other domestic horse breeds (Equus ferus caballus or Equus caballus). The Asian Wild Horse or Przewalski Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) is the only surviving wild subspecies of the wild horse.

Domestic Horse

Photo: An Arabian horse, an old breed of domestic horse that originated in the Middle East. Photographed by Victoria Short and released under the GNU Free Documentation License. A full resolution version of this photo can be found at Wikimedia Commons.

It is still debated when, where and why horses were first domesticated (Kavar and Dovč 2008). Two models of horse domestication have been suggested (Clutton-Brock, 1999). The first model hypotheses a restricted origin of the domestic horse: through selective breeding of a limited wild stock and thereafter distributed to other regions (Kavar and Dovč 2008; Vilà et al. 2001). Recent (genetic) research found evidence in favour for the second model in which domestication involved a large number of founders recruited over an extended time period from throughout the extensive Eurasian range of the wild horse (Kavar and Dovč 2008; Vilà et al. 2001). Horses have been independently captured from diverse wild horse populations (Vilà et al. 2001). All the different types and breeds of horses that are known today would than not be the result of just artificial selection by man, but also from natural selection for adaptation to local environmental conditions in the ancestral wild horse populations (Kavar and Dovč 2008; Vilà et al. 2001). As wild populations disappeared the emphasis was places on captive breeding (Vilà et al. 2001) and selective breeding, resulting in the domestic horse. There are more than 300 horse breeds in the world today (Wikipedia contributors 2009a). Domestic horse breeds are and/or were used for food, milk, agriculture, warfare, racing, riding and as pets.

Sorraia Horse, a remnant Iberian population?

Photo: Purebred Sorraia Stallion, Altamiro, is the herd sire of the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve on Manitoulin Island in Ontario, Canada. Photographed by Selona on 25 May 2008. This image can be found at Wikimedia Commons and has been released under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Licence.

Another very close relative is most likely the Sorraia horse. These horses are a remnant population of an indigenous, South Iberian wild horse, which survived almost pure in the inaccessible lowlands of the Portuguese river Sorraia until the early 1900s. The Iberian scientist and horse expert Dr. Ruy d’Andrade discovered these horses in 1920. All Sorraias descend from only 11 or 12 animals that d’Andrade secured in the 1930s and now only some 200 are alive today, which are mostly in private hands. Dr. d’Andrade never claimed his Sorraia to be pure anymore, but he hoped to breed them back to near purity by keeping them isolated on his estate. Beside the Asian wild horse, the tarpan is recognized by many as a wild subspecies (some recognise more). DNA-analyses seem to indicate a close relationship between the Sorraia horse and the tarpan. If further research confirms what first tests have shown, then the Sorraia is an Iberian regional variant of the tarpan, a remnant of an Iberian Tarpan population. (Jansen et al., 2002; Sorraia.org, 2006)

Asian Wild Horse or Przewalski's Horse

Photo: Przewalski's horse in the Cologne Zoological Garden in Germany. Photographed by Lars Schmitt and released under the GNU Free Documentation License

Przewalski's Horse, Asian Wild Horse or Mongolian Wild Horse (Equus ferus przewalskii) is a rare and endangered subspecies of Wild Horse (Equus ferus) native to the steppes of central Asia. It is the only surviving wild horse subspecies. At one time extinct in the wild, it has been reintroduced to its native habitat in Mongolia at the Khustain Nuruu National Park, Takhin Tal Nature Reserve and Khomiin Tal. The taxonomic position is still debated, and some taxonomists treat Przewalski's Horse as a species, Equus przewalskii. (Wikipedia contributors 2009b) However, genetic research in 2009 indicates that Przewalski’s horses and domestic horses are very closely related and that Przewalski’s horses do not form a separate monophyletic group (Lau et al. 2009).

The world population of these horses are all descended from 9 of the 31 horses in captivity in 1945. These nine horses were mostly descended from approximately 15 captured around 1900. A cooperative venture between the Zoological Society of London and Mongolian scientists has resulted in successful reintroduction of these horses from zoos into their natural habitat in Mongolia; and as of 2005 there is a free-ranging population of 248 animals in the wild. The total number of these horses according to a 2005 census was about 1,500. (Wikipedia contributors 2009b)

The text in this section about the Przewalski's Horse has mostly been taken from Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Przewalski_Horse), and is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Web Links

Tarpan - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Extinction: European Wild Horse

The Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc (France)                     

The Cave of Lascaux (France)


FS Sorraia.org

North American Tarpan Association



(Complete website)

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Last updated: 17th May 2009.

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