Mystery of Sable Island’s Growing Wild Horse Population

Sable Island Wild Horse University of Saskatchewan Nova Scotia’s Sable Island

Sable Island Wild Horse University of Saskatchewan Nova Scotia’s Sable Island

University of Saskatchewan (U of S) biologists have made a significant advance in understanding the ecology of Sable Island and its iconic wild horses - one that underscores how intimately connected living systems are.

Source: University of Saskatchewan

The number of Nova Scotia’s Sable Island horses is at an historic high – now ranging from 450 to 550 horses compared with only 200 to 400 during the past 250 years. A team led by Philip McLoughlin and Keith Hobson has been trying to find out why the numbers have grown so much.

In research featured the first week of August, 2016, in the journal Ecology and as the “editor’s choice” in The Scientist, McLoughlin, an associate professor in biology at the University of Saskatchewan and his team demonstrated a link between burgeoning seal populations on Canada’s east coast and the foraging habits of feral horses along the length of Sable Island.

They have found that grey seals, whose numbers on the island have swelled from fewer than 1,000 in the 1960s to nearly 400,000 currently, have their pups on the island and fertilize the sandy, wind-swept grasslands — transferring nutrients from the sea that promotes growth of the grasses where feral horses have now chosen to feed.

Sable Island Wild Horse University of Saskatchewan Nova Scotia’s Sable Island

The number of Nova Scotia’s Sable Island horses is at an historic high, and a research team from the University of Saskatchewan is trying to find out why.

McLoughlin cautions that more research is needed to say definitively whether the increase in seal numbers is increasing the survival and reproduction of the horses feeding near seal colonies. But measurements prove the seals do enrich the island’s plant growth with nitrogen from feeding on fish in the ocean, and computer modelling has demonstrated that the horses preferentially select those particular grassy areas to eat.

“What is really interesting is that we show how the enrichment of grasses, which occurs non-uniformly on the island, then affects how the horses move around the island to eat,” he said.

Sable Island Wild Horse University of Saskatchewan Nova Scotia’s Sable Island

“This speaks to the question of how seemingly distinct systems — ocean and land — can be interconnected by fundamental ecological relationships.”

The team’s next step is to determine whether nitrogen originating from the sea is detectable in the tissues or hair of the horses, and if so, the extent to which it explains their reproduction and survival.

The team included University of Saskatchewan graduate students Kenton Lysak and Tom Perry, and post-doctoral fellow Lucie Debeffe.

Sable Island Wild Horse University of Saskatchewan Nova Scotia’s Sable Island

Since 2007, McLoughlin, his students and his research collaborators have been naming and keeping track of the life histories and movements of every horse that lives on Sable Island, with a view to better understanding how populations function and how isolated populations may be conserved.

“Sable Island is truly one of the most interesting outdoor laboratories a population ecologist could ask for,” he said.

The project was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, with in-kind support from Parks Canada Agency and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Reprinted with the kind permission of the University of Saskatchewan.

Photos: Wikimedia/Paul Gierszewski

Wild horses and grey seals by the beach on Sable Island, Nova Scotia.

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