Herd History: Corolla Wild Horse Fund using tissue-collecting darts for DNA tracing

Science

COROLLA, N.C. (WAVY) — Before now, the true origin of Corolla’s wild banker horses lied somewhere between story and science. In an ambitious new project, the two are weaving together to help shape the herd’s future, while telling the story of their past.

The Corolla Wild Horse Fund‘s main goal is to protect and preserve the herds that roam the dunes of coastal North Carolina.

They agree that folklore is just as important as scientific fact, but science is helping them learn how to better care for them.

“Our mission here with the Corolla Wild Horse Fund is to save the breed,” says herd manager Meg Puckett. “So, in order to do that, we need to know everything we can about these horses … and that includes literally right down to the DNA.”

A new DNA project is helping piece together the herd’s history by unraveling the true lineage of each horse in the group.

Before the DNA testing, storytellers suggested dramatic shipwrecks that sent horses swimming to shore. Others believe the banker horses were dropped on mini islands off the coast as a way to contain them while explorers traveled.

The latter idea has been backed by historians in the past. They say evidence shows Spanish explorers traveling with livestock, occasionally dropping the horses off hoping they’d be there when they returned.

DNA testing technology is fine-tuning the anecdotes.

“We use a dart gun to collect tissue samples and so there are special darts that are manufactured just for DNA collection,” explains Puckett.

The dart is shot at the wild horses and later drops to the ground with a tissue sample inside. It’s picked up and sent off to a lab at Texas A&M. There, scientists comb through the DNA to pinpoint the horse’s lineage and potential health issues.

DNA is collected from retired wild horses at the organization’s Grandy farm as well. Caretakers pull hair from their manes to send off for testing.

Organizers with the fund have started to receive full reports back from the lab – and some of them back up the campfire folklore and the historian’s hypothesis.

The reports are proving about 85% of the horse’s lineage traces back to Spaniards in the 1500s, per Puckett.

“These horses were brought here about five, six hundred years ago by the Spanish when they were exploring the East Coast,” Puckett says. “About 85 percent of the horses here are Spanish.”

ALBC (as well as the Equus Foundation Trust) has listed the Corolla and Shackleford Banker strain of Colonial Spanish Mustangs as Critically Endangered. The next category is extinction.

This research not only fills blank pages in a history book, but is vital to keeping the endangered horses safe. Some health issues don’t rear their heads until later in life. Through this DNA sampling, herd organizers are able to pick up on negative health traits that may further endanger the horses.

“Through the DNA we can potentially be able to isolate what is actually causing those issues,” explains Puckett. “What this is gonna help us do is isolate different genetic issues we might see in the herd.”

“So if we have a family of horses that tends to have eye issues we turn to the DNA and see what’s causes those issues and see if we can manage the breeding that way. If there’s a mare that is consistently producing foals with eye problems then we can make sure we stop those genetics from being passed on.”

Through careful conservation efforts, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund has kept extinction at bay. They’re hoping by continuing to track the herd’s history — it’ll stay that way. 

More articles about the Corolla Wild Horses

Stay with WAVY.com for future updates on the Corolla Wild Horse Fund.

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