Researchers start to unravel the mysteries of the North African Barb horse - petsitterbank

Researchers start to unravel the mysteries of the North African Barb horse

Berber warriors mounted on Barb horses. Photo: Notwist, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A genetic study of the North African Barb horse has revealed close links to Arabian and Thoroughbred horse breeds, and even evidence of input from the famous sire, the Godolphin Arabian.

The North African Barb horse has been bred over centuries in the Maghreb region, on a corridor between the Arab and the Western world.

Lara Radovic and her fellow researchers, writing in the journal animalssaid the ancestry of the North African breed is especially puzzling, having been shaped by many influences.

The history and origin of the North African horse have been long debated, they said, with many myths abounding.

“Still, there is no confirmation of horses inhabiting Africa, or evidence of domesticated horses roaming around the continent in early prehistoric time, but discussions about an ‘Equus Algericus‘ found near Tiaret (Algeria) still remain,” they noted.

However, historical and archeological findings indicate that the introduction of the domesticated horse to North Africa was likely in the late second millennium BCE.

The study investigated the paternally inherited Y chromosome in 84 modern-day Barbs and 35 Arab-Barb males collected from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and European subpopulations in a bid to link genetic patterns and narrative history.

A broad Y chromosomal spectrum was found by the researchers, as well as regional disparities among populations.

Y chromosomal patterns illustrated a tight connection of Barb horses with Arabians and several other breeds, including the Thoroughbred.

The results also revealed the genetic footprints of past migrations between North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. Indeed, 57% of the dataset supports historical migrations between these two regions.

The findings revealed the wide variety of influential stallions throughout the breed’s history, with a remarkable number of early introduced lineages.

The refinement with Thoroughbred and Arabian male lineages was more recent, they said.

Discussing their findings, the researchers said the relationship between the North African Barb and the Arabian horse has been continuously debated.

The findings show the significant influence of Arabian stallion lines in Barbs and Arab-Barbs.

“A clear Arabian signature was visible in about a third of the analyzed samples. For the Arab-Barbs, the results are not surprising since the breed is based on Barbs refined with Arabians.”

However, two-thirds of the analyzed samples (85 North African horses) did not carry the Arabian signature for which the researchers tested. Particularly interesting is that among those were 27 Arab-Barbs.

A particularly remarkable finding was evidence of the Godolphin Arabian sire line in a Barb horse. The Godolphin Arabian was one of the founding sires of the Thoroughbred breed.

The Godolphin Arabian
The Godolphin Arabian

There is still controversy about the ancestry of the Godolphin Arabian, they noted. “He is often referred to as Godolphin Barb due to his North African origin and phenotypic marks different from the Arabian horse.”

These latest findings will again fuel discussion around the origin of the Godolphin Arabian, they said.

The authors said every horse-riding culture that was present in the region over the centuries could have left footprints in the Barb horses’ genomes.

“Overall,” they said, “North African horses retained the print of the ‘early Oriental influence’, starting with the Muslim conquests.

“These horses could be a reservoir of genetic diversity — although their population is small.”

Further investigation of additional males, especially from the Maghreb regions, is needed, they said.

“Our study highlights the value of the Y chromosome analysis for horse population genetics and, for the first time, enlightens recent paternal population history of the North African Barb horses.”

The findings indicate, on the one hand, that stallions were probably widespread hundreds of years preceding the formation of modern horse breeds, and on the other hand, indicate the impact on historical migrations and recent upgrading.

“However, with our approach, it is at the moment not possible to pinpoint where and when the ancestors of North African Barbs came from, as well as the direction of gene flow.”

Future analysis of ancient DNA, as well as the inclusion of more diverse Barb populations, are essential for dating the origin of haplogroups.

The findings, they say, enhance knowledge around the paternal ancestry of the breed and provide the basis for future work and the establishment of conservation breeding programs.

Radovic, L.; Remer, V.; Krcal, C.; Rigler, D.; Brem, G.; Rayane, A.; Driss, K.; Benamar, M.; Machmoum, M.; Piro, M.; Krischke, D.; Butler-Wemken, IV; Wallner, B. Y Chromosome Haplotypes Enlighten Origin, Influence, and Breeding History of North African Barb Horses. Animals 2022, 12, 2579.

The study, published under a Creative Commons Licensecan be read here.

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