Fate of the Abaco Barbs

799px-Hopetown-lighthouse

Hurricane Irene, which hit the Abaco Islands a few days ago, had many people wondering about the fate of the critically endangered Abaco Barbs. The good news is that the three mares that are kept on the preserve are apparently fine. To my knowledge nothing is known about the fate of the stallions, but that has been true for a long time. There are at most two, and they are not kept on the preserve with the mares. The last sighting was of the 22 year-old stallion Hadar, made in February of this year. The second stallion, the splash overo Capella (made famous by Breyer), has only been sighted twice in the last five years. A flyover of the island in 2010 did not turn him up.

Even without a hurricane, though, the future of this breeding group appears grim. No foals have been born since 1998, and the three remaining mares are believed to be infertile, possibly due to exposure to pesticides. But even if they were fertile, and the two stallions still alive and fertile, their small numbers would create dangerous levels of inbreeding. (Two of the mares are mother and daughter, so there are not even three distinct female lines now.)

From a color perspective, the splash overo pattern is still there by the slimmest of margins. If Capella, a homozygous splash, is still alive, then the prospect of preserving the pattern are much better. If not, probably the only source is the heterozygous splash mare Nunki. She looks very typical of splash carriers in breeds without sabino. The other two mares, Acamar and her daughter Alnitak, are plain bays. Acamar does have a star, and some splash carriers are pretty cryptic, but it would be slim hope were she the only one. Acamar and Alnitak do have frosty roaning in their coats, but it is not as pronounced as that on a dark-headed roan.

So the steps that must be taken now is to find one of the five horses still alive and still able to breed. If that can be done, out-crossing is going to have to take place. If experts are consulted, a preservation program can be created that would utilize animals from genetically similar backgrounds. That kind of research will be the subject of a future post, because it is a wonderful tool not only for preserving livestock diversity, but also for shedding light on the true relationships between the different breeds. The Barbs on Abaco may well be a cautionary tale – rather than a success story – about preserving genetically distinct populations, but there are many endangered groups where the outlook is more optimistic and there is still time to take action.

(Pictured is the lighthouse at Hope Town in the Abaco Islands of the Bahamas.)

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11 Responses to Fate of the Abaco Barbs

  1. Jacqueline Ferrigno August 31, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    I’m going to have to start checking my room for bugs LOL Again I’ve been talking about the Abaco barbs with a few people this last week. Mainly trying to find how a few years back I thought their numbers were over 100, and now when researching what color genes they carry, I found the arkwild blog where there was only 5. how was it they became so few in numbers? Or were they really not that high in the first place?

  2. The Equine Tapestry August 31, 2011 at 2:50 pm #

    I think they are on a lot of people’s minds because of the storm, but also because I think there has been a fair bit of collective frustration with the whole situation. As for their numbers, it is my understanding that the highest population in recent years (early 1990s?) was 35. It dropped to a dozen or so seven years ago, and now it is down to five (maybe). Most were lost to things that could have been prevented if the horses had been removed to safety – wild dogs, injuries, birthing complications.

    Some have pointed to the way the mares were kept (overfed and inactive) as a factor in their infertility, along with the pesticides. I don’t know how much of that is so, not knowing just who has looked at them to diagnose the problem. I’ve also read some accounts that stated the original 35 horses were built up from *three* survivors from the herds of the 1960s. If that is true, some of their problems might have started there.

    • Jacqueline Ferrigno August 31, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

      If you have questions on them, or are looking for some one that may be able to provide a lead. I would refer to Dr. Gus Cothran, I’ve been in contact with him a number of times over the years, mostly with the Florida Cracker Horses, but he has done a lot for population genetic research on island/feral horses as well.

      This is the information I have for him, I believe he is still at Texas A&M
      E. Gus Cothran, Ph.D.
      Animal Genetics Lab.
      VIBS, CVM
      Texas A&M University
      TAMU 4458
      College Station, TX 77843-4458
      (979) 845-0229
      gcothran@cvm.tamu.edu

  3. jamie coughlin August 31, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

    I remember when I first read about them and there were quite a few (35 I guess!) and I thought if they would just remove them to a safe place (preferably off an island) and managed correctly they could have been saved but even as horses foundered and died, got killed by dogs and cars and humans and caught in trash and fences and got colic and died they just did nothing but wring their hands and beg for money which could have been used to move the horses to FL. Selective outcrossing at that time could have helped preserve the breed without diluting the genes too much. Now it is too late which is a shame.

  4. The Equine Tapestry August 31, 2011 at 3:29 pm #

    Yes, Dr. Cothran did the gene testing on the Abacos, according to Arkwild.

  5. Jacqueline Ferrigno August 31, 2011 at 3:42 pm #

    Oh sorry, and I forgot to add. There have been studies here with BLM herds, and the effects of inbreeding. Some BLM ranges haven’t had any foals, and their numbers were managed to such a drastic extent that inbreeding is suspected to cause them to be infertile. I don’t know the two stallions relation to the other three mares. But a retired professor of mine presented some of his research to us one day that suggested band stallions would not breed to their daughters, even when they came into season, and that the daughters eventually left their family bands on their own. Coming from someone who has only had experience in domestic breeding, I found that kind of distinction by the stallions quite interesting. Specially since we like to line breed a lot in our domestic horses and the stallions act like they don’t even know the difference.

    Why were the two remaining stallions not kept on the preserve? In all the photos I see them as lone horses, and from a behavioral perspective, that doesn’t click as natural behavior for me.

  6. jamie coughlin September 1, 2011 at 10:09 pm #

    Nothing they did with these horses made much sense to me. It may have been just that they couldn’t catch the stallions or they kept breaking out. If you read back through the newsletters you might find some answers there.

    The Cloud DVDs show some interesting behavior on the wild horses part re: breeding. Many of the families consisted of mares bred by other stallions and many young mares would leave their bands to breed and sometimes stay with their bands and sometimes stay with the stallion band they grew up in. It is no coincidence that the BLM has reduced the numbers on the range below the numbers required for genetic viability. It isn’t like they weren’t TOLD how many needed to be on the range.

    Amazingly enough when left alone Mother Nature usually knows best!

    • Jacqueline Ferrigno September 3, 2011 at 6:02 pm #

      I did a speech on this for well, my speech class LOL. And wrote lengthy report for my Comp Final. This was a few years back, but I did find a few herds when left unmanaged and at viable numbers they did level out and the BLM did not need to round any up. Then there were some that were kept so few, I want to say New Mexican herds, where they had not had a foal since the 90′s. I don’t remember the herd ranges exactly, but it was pretty startling once I went thought the statistics posted on the BLM site.

  7. Wanda Twellman September 22, 2011 at 4:11 pm #

    I’ve pondered the falling numbers of the Abaco horse for several years. I’m curious about something but don’t know how to find the answer. Perhaps here.

    I’m wondering if any one has compared the DNA of the Abaco horse to the Wilbur-Cruce horse. They have a very similar history and have both been referred to as direct descendants of the Spanish Barb. I am wondering if they share enough genetic markers that the Wilbur-Cruce horses could be very carefully used to help increase the numbers of the Abaco horse. Introducing new genetic material would be healthy for the Abaco as a distinct breed.

    I saw a mention that the mares are kept too fat and too inactive to be able to breed. I know that fat can accumulate around the kidney’s frequently compressing the female organs so that the animal can’t get pregnant. If it is true that the mares are too fat, it’s time to put them on a diet and exercise program to hopefully return them to fertility. I have seen no mention on whether the mares are cycling normally or not. However, in the last few weeks I’ve heard a rumor that one of the three mares has foaled recently. Does anyone know if this is true or not??

    I am keenly interested in doing what I can do to help preserve this unique blood line.

    • The Equine Tapestry September 23, 2011 at 7:11 am #

      I don’t think the analysis of the Abacos was ever published, so what we have is speculation. But what the organization stated about the findings seems to suggest that the horses were compared to other Spanish Colonial groups. I don’t know if the Wilbur-Cruce horses were specifically included, but I would imagine they would use a wide range of the groups they have on file.

      As for one of the mares foaling, I had not heard that. The last foal born, at least as far as I know about, was in 1998. I don’t know the nature of the mare’s infertility, though. I am not sure that’s ever been explained in any real detail. It is truly a shame, but I don’t see how the group can be recovered at this point.

  8. Kaitlin December 19, 2011 at 9:31 pm #

    Why dont they move them somewhere off th island and breed them to other spanish related horses like the paso fino? I read that they could be decendants of the paso fino breed. And if the stallions are still alive breed them to the paso fino or whatever breed they have chosen to be bred with?