BY JOSY O’DONNEL
Horses are fascinating animals, both incredibly resilient and frighteningly delicate. Although the genus Equus, containing the species of zebras, horses, and donkeys, seems to have originated in North America, the modern horse’s ancestors migrated to Eurasia and the remaining groups in North America died out by the and of the Pleistocene era — between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago. What we know as the modern horse came to North America along with the Spanish conquistadors to be used for transportation and to aid in physical labor. When these horses escaped from their owners, they formed herds in the hills and plains of the New World and quickly remembered their ancient habits and group dynamics.
The horses that live on the Outer Banks, the islands lining the coast of North Carolina and separating it from the Atlantic ocean, are thought to have settled there centuries ago. When observed, they demonstrate many mannerisms indicative of the ancient horse. A stallion leads his own harem of females and their young and is responsible for keeping them safe and healthy, which means finding them water, food, and shelter and discovering safe places to flee to during storms.
Young stallions, or bachelors, compete with each other and the harem leaders for dominance over their own harem. When problems arise, stallions fight with each other to determine which one of them will be left out in the cold. Quite literally. In 1999, four stallions were found dead off the coast of Shackleford island after a severe storm, as detailed by Sue Stuska in The Scientist, a wildlife biologist working at the Cape Lookout National Seashore. She hypothesizes that these younger stallions lost a battle for dominance with the leader of a harem and were unable to find a safe spot on higher ground to ride out the storm.
All this being said, horses are very intuitive and can sense when a storm is brewing long before humans — according to Stuska, they are “good barometric sensors.” Their efficient communicate allows a stallion to lead his harem to a safe spot on higher ground in time for them to hunker down and wait out the danger. If the storm is severe enough, several herds might shelter together if safe spaces are scarce. John Taggart, a University of North Carolina, Wilmington professor of environmental studies, relates a story from the 1990s on the Rachel Carson Reserve in which several harems “gave up their internal, political dynamics, staying together on the relatively highest ground of that site,” an unusual sight in less serious circumstances. However, the Outer Banks is home to about 119 feral horses and these barrier islands are small, relatively barren areas to call home. The Rachel Carson Reserve has only about one square kilometer of ground that is high enough to provide shelter during storms.
Climate change has created two major problems for wild horses. First, the increasing number of storms each year is diminishing the freshwater supply on the islands. Since there are no permanent freshwater locations on the islands, horses roam to find water and food, and when they find a watering hole that has been compromised by a storm — meaning that salt water from the ocean has tainted the sweetwater — they will no longer return to that watering hole in the future. It is imperative for wild horses to get fresh water daily, especially because the grass on which they graze is usually very salty due to the exposed conditions of the islands. Available sweetwater is gradually diminishing and horses are starting to avoid more sources of it due to the frequency of severe storms in the region.
Second, the landmass of the islands is shrinking as sea levels rise. Like Venice, the Outer Banks is sinking. Because of the small area of the islands to begin with, the wild horse population is in greater and greater danger of not being able to find adequate food or shelter as time goes on. Climate models have demonstrated that “vast swaths of wetlands, and the precious shorebird habitats contained within, would likely be radically altered—or even under water—in 2100. According to the model, rising sea levels over the next 100 years will flood coastal marshlands and transform inland habitats at Chincoteague NWR—producing a cascade effect on the refuge’s habitats.” Although that date might seem like it’s a long way off, the steadily diminishing land size will cause wild horses to intensify their competitions for food, water, and space, leading to a consistent decrease in their population size.
Scientists like John Taggart are calling for the relocation of the herds on the Outer Banks, partially for their safety and also to preserve the local environment. The movement of wild horses has been shown to increase the speed of the erosion of the dunes in the area. This effect, along with the ravages of modern storms, is leading to the rapidly diminishing health of the area overall. It is clear that the wild horse population on these barrier islands is not sustainable. Debates are raging over how to proceed. Relocating the horses is likely to cause stress on the herds and will come at a high cost, both from removing a vital tourist attraction and from the logistics of how and where to move them. But if they are not relocated, the land will degrade much more quickly, leading to the destruction of a unique environment along with the species it sustains.
Climate change has brought us face-to-face with countless questions about how to preserve endangered species, and the wild horses of the Outer Banks are at risk like so many others. It is vital that we focus on reducing the caustic use of our energy and resources in order to slow down the negative effects of climate change and give us time to find solutions to how to preserve the beautiful and unique species of our planet.
Hi! I am Josy O’Donnel, and I am the creator of Conservation Institute. While completing my bachelors degree, I developed an interest in the study of Earth’s future and the conservation of Earth’s natural resources. Years after, I am still immersed in these subjects. I want to share my passion with an online community of people who are devoted spreading awareness and attention to the most pressing threats to the diversity of life on Earth.