Rare zebras to be studied at Smithsonian Institute

Hartmann's mountain zebras are pictured at the Smithsonian Conservation Research Center in Front Royal. Biologists will be using three zebras to examine reproductive traits as well as experiment with terrain to find an ideal surface for the animals. Courtesy photo

The Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal is the new home to a rare species of zebra. Three Hartmann’s mountain zebras — two mares, Yvonne and Xolani, and one stallion, Raylan — will be living at the institute in order for researchers to better understand their reproductive habits, among other things.

The institute has had common zebras in years past, but never the Hartmann’s mountain variety, one of two members of the mountain zebras subspecies. They are a fairly rare animal in the wild and are considered a threatened species.

The Hartmann’s mountain zebras in Front Royal came from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, said Dolores Reed, supervisory biologist for ungulates at the institute.

“Their striping is a little more different. The Hartmann’s are shorter, more like the common zebra,” she said. “They have a dulap (flap of skin) under their chin. They’re the only equine that has that.”

Animal behavior differs from species to species and even from subspecies to subspecies, said Reed, and a more refined, species-specific understanding of the Hartmann’s mountain zebra is the goal for the study at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, especially when it comes to reproduction.

Budhan Pukazhenth is a reproductive biologist at the institute who says he hopes to end up with a more scientifically reliable population of 10 to 12 zebras that he hopes can be bred from the original trio.

“Very limited research has been done on wild equines in general,” he said. “There’s been a good amount of preliminary work being done on grevy’s zebras. There has certainly not been a systematic approach done. That’s what we hope to do once we get the collection size to a reasonable number that will give us sound, scientific data. We will definitely start studying the animals here and we will also increase our sample size to look at some baseline hormone data and any seasonality they show in different situations. We will also look at them closely, doing ultrasound exams and looking at ovaries during the reproductive cycles.”

Also of interest to the institute’s biologists is the terrain on which the zebras will be living. The hooves of Hartmann’s mountain zebras, Reed said, are notoriously finicky and part of the team’s research will center around finding a suitable surface for the animals to live on.

“Virginia in general is very moist and they’re from a much dryer climate,” Reed said. “We’re going to work with different sized rocks and gravels to be more what they’re used to in the wild. Disney had issues with their hooves as well. The biggest problem with them is that they can get broken too short. If they’re on a surface that isn’t tough enough, then their hooves can get too long. You want them to wear them down on their own correctly but not wear them down too much too quickly.”

That dialing in process is the same strategy that biologists will be using to determine the nuanced reproductive habits and traits of the zebras as well, said Reed.

“Historically, we’ve had the common zebra in the 1980s and 1990s and they were here just for breeding and to test to see if they could live out here in the mountains and they did quite well,” she said. “It has a lot to do with the timing. Their biology is different enough where you have to learn it for each species. The general technology is there but you have to fine tune it for each species.”

Pukazhenth explained the intricacies of the captive breeding process.

“On the reproductive side of things, there is a general interest in knowing more about and developing these reproductive technologies and we are very actively involved in those discussions and because of our expertise available here, we are basically taking the lead in that initiative but we’ll also bring in more partners as they come available,” he said. “In most cases we also develop artificial breeding technology in the event that natural breeding doesn’t happen.”

Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or nbudryk@nvdaily.com