Study analyzes horse ecology through tail hair samples


While there’s certainly quite a lot we can learn from a horse’s appearance, research has indicated that there is often more than meets the eye when analyzing a horse’s looks. One of the more overlooked features of a horse’s appearance is its hair, which has been known to tell everything from what type of behavior to expect to even its ecological tendencies. From growth rates to color changes, each horse’s coat of hair has its own characteristics and qualities that allude to how it behaves and interacts with other horses, as well as its trainer. Take a look at the different ways a horse’s hair actually tells us a lot about the horse:

Study analyzes behavior and ecology through tail hair growth
Researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna in Austria worked together to analyze a number of tail hair samples in horses to gain insight on a variety of qualities and traits. The study involved examining various isotope ratios collected within each horse hair sample, which are essentially variations of chemical elements, such as oxygen, hydrogen and carbon. Analyzing these isotopes would allow the researchers to better understand several distinct behaviors, including nutrition habits and ecological interactions.

The researchers used free-ranging wild horses found native to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia for their study, because the vast range in climatic conditions and other inhabitant horse species allowed for more variety in isotope analyzation. One particular way the scientists measured isotope analysis was by determining the growth rate of tail hair within these horses. Because temperatures vary greatly within the Gobi Desert, composition of the chemical elements found within a horse’s hair also fluctuate, depending on the time of year. The researchers used Earth Observing System Data and Information System from NASA to apply algorithms of growth rate for both the summer and winter seasons. On average, it took a wild Mongolian horse 19 days for its tail hair to grow 1 centimeter in length. Knowing how long it takes for a horse’s tail hair to grow helps us better understand environmental and seasonal factors that play into nutrition and migration tendencies of these animals.

Dr. Martina Burnik Šturm, a researcher at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna and lead author of the study, elaborated on how determining the specific time growth rates of a horse’s tail hair allows for a more clear analysis of isotope ratios found in a hair sample.

“We found that tail hair growth varies greatly between species and even between individuals,” Burnik Šturm said in a statement. “Isotope analysis of hair is a common method in the study of animal nutrition and migration. Our method makes it possible for the first time to establish exact time lines for an animal’s ecology and behaviour. Previous time lines were estimations and not entirely accurate. Now researchers have a relatively simple method with which to correctly interpret their data.”

The study is still in progress, and researchers hope the next step is analyzing how each centimeter growth in tail hair details the changes in isotope ratios.