Tuesday, January 11, 2011

DNA evidence and the history of the Percheron

An 1881 photograph of a pair of Percherons

A 1743 engraving of an Iberian horse.

It is a "snow day" and I am busy thinking deep thoughts and doing some basic research - just thought I would share some of my musings and findings.

First, there have been a number of scientific papers of late on the evolution, history, origins, mDNA of the horse as well as breeds of horses. Being a Percheron History buff and following old documents has led me to the rather controversial conclusion that there was a fair amount of revisionist history regarding the origins of the Percheron horse. In particular, during the hey-day of the work horse, historic evidence of the Percheron light horse lineages, such as stud book documents at the Haras du Pin were downplayed and even questioned (1).

Now almost a hundred years after Sander's seminal (and revisionist) writings on the history of the Percheron horse in France in the early 1800s (1) and a 125 years after MC Weld and DuHays published their book "the Percheron Horse in America and in France" in 1886 (2), DNA evidence shows that yes...Percherons do have DNA matching them to "barbs, " (barb was a term loosely used to describe the ancient Iberian breeds of the Iberian Peninsula in the early 1800s), as well as Arabians. This DNA evidence is quite robust and shows that "the ancient and singular Iberian haplotype B is nowadays found in Percheron (France), Arabian and Wielkopolski (Poland) horses (3)." It has also been reported that blood typing studies done in 1990 by Dr. E. Gus Cothran demonstrated similar genetic markers in Percherons and "Andulusians." This is indisputable proof of the role of Iberian horse in the creation of the Percheron breed.

I found another good paper on French horses and their genetic linkage to each other. One of the interesting facts that I found was that the french draft horse breeds all share common genetic markers and are closely related to each other. By using microsatellite markers, the researchers evaluated genetic distances and characterized local breeds, as well as evaluated the genetic contribution of populations to within-breed and between-breed diversities. In relationships involving draft horses, the author's conclusions from this data was that the draft horse lineages in France are genetically closely related. The table showing distances of horse breeds clearly indicates that Percherons are a draft breed but that they also are "closer" genetically to many other horse breed types. The author's write: "The draught horses constitute a quite homogenous group, including the nine French draught horse breeds and three breeds presently classified as pony (HAF) or warm-blooded (MER and FRI in a lesser extent) breeds. These three breeds were historically used as draught horse breeds and could therefore have been subject to crossbreeding with other draught horse populations in their past history." Although they also found three other draft horse breeds to be very genetically close to each other and none of these breeds were Percherons.

The grand thing about techniques such as DNA linkage analysis, blood typing and mitochondrial DNA typing is that it isn't based on someone's interpretation of historic events, the data is based on hard science. Over the next decade, I can't wait for more details to be revealed on the modern Percheron horse as well as the ancient Iberian breeds.

1.) Sanders, A., A History of the Percheron Horse 1917

2.) Weld, MC and DuHays. The Percheron Horse. 1886

3.) Origin and History of Mitochondrial DNA Lineages in Domestic HorsesMichael Cieslak,1 Melanie Pruvost,1,2* Norbert Benecke,2 Michael Hofreiter,3,4 Arturo Morales,5 Monika Reissmann,6 and Arne Ludwig PLos One 5(12) e15311

4) Genetic diversity of a large set of horse breeds raised in France assessed by microsatellite polymorphism. Grégoire Leroy, Lucille Callède, Etienne Verrier, Jean-Claude Mériaux, Anne Ricard, Coralie Danchin-Burge and Xavier Rognon Genetics Selection Evolution 2009, 41:31