Sakha Republic – or Yakutia in Russia gets very cold indeed. Temperatures can dip to -70 °C (-94 °F) and its capitol, Yakutsk, is the coldest city in the northern hemisphere.
There is life in the freezer though, including a population of stocky, shaggy steeds known as Yakutian horses.
The Yakuts would undoubtedly have perished if not for these beasts. Locals relied on the horses for transportation, food in the form of horse meat, and clothing made from horse hides. Horses have played a central role in the region’s economy for hundreds of years.
Researchers say these horses, which seem so well attuned to the harsh cold with thick, dense winter coats, their armour against temperatures of minus 70C (minus 94F), are incomers that only arrived in these parts within the last 800 years. It turns out that these horses adapted to the extreme Siberian climates with astonishing speed.
Moreover, there was indeed a breed of horses native to this vast area of Russia, in which lie the coldest permanently inhabited communities on the planet. But these true native horses became extinct, at roughly the same time as the woolly mammoth and rhinoceros also died out, finally disappearing around 5,000 years ago.
The team’s analyses placed the nine modern-day Yakutian horses and the Yakutian horse from the 19th century within the “evolutionary tree” of domesticated horses. They fall closest to the Mongolian, Fjord and Icelandic horses, with the Mongolian horses their most likely ancestors.
Russian scientist Artem Nedoluzhko, head of the Laboratory of Bioinformatics and Genomics Research of Kurchatov Institute, in Moscow, who was involved in the research, said: ‘We have shown that the Yakutian horse is one of the fastest cases of adaptation to the extreme Arctic temperatures.
‘In the genome of the Yakutian horses, we found the mutations that help the adaptation: revealed genes involved in the development of hair, affecting the body size, metabolic and hormonal signaling ways. The changes found in the genome of Yakutian horses are an essential part of the adaptive genetic tools of the body.