Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Tarpan that wasn't

This photo is well-known as the only alleged photograph of a Tarpan and was taken in 1884, not long before its extinction:

Photo of the "Cherson Tarpan" taken in 1884 (Image source: Wikipedia)
Folks, this was not a Tarpan, at least no pure one. With a high probability it was just a feral horse, or one of the many hybrids between feral and wild horses that have been around in the Russian steppe during the 19th century. But let’s have a look at the history of that particular individual first.
It was nicknamed the “Cherson Tarpan” and had been caught as a newborn foal near the Russian city Novo-Voroncowka in 1866. It was moved to the Moscow Zoo and castrated because it displayed aggressive behaviour. The “Cherson Tarpan” died in 1887, eight years after the last free-roaming horse (be it a Tarpan, feral horse or hybrid) was shot. The “Cherson Tarpan” is one of at least two free-roaming horses that were caught and displayed at Moscow Zoo. The other one is the “Krim Tarpan”, which’s status as a wild horse was questioned even back those times. A third one, the alleged latest-surviving Tarpan is very dubious to me. There are several dates for when it died, some sources say 1908, 1909 or even 1918, and some sources even fuse it with the Cherson individual. Because of these discrepancies, I wouldn’t be surprised if that individual didn’t exist at all, but may be the “Cherson Tarpan” which’s date of death had been “pushed” into the 20th century by sloppy citing. And even if this third individual existed, no-one knows if it truly was a wild horse or not. I know some descriptions of this individual, but none of them is credible. But back to the “Cherson Tarpan”. It is well-known because it’s the only alleged Tarpan that was photographed. But just like the “Krim Tarpan” it most likely is no wild horse since it does not show any wild horse features: it has a long mane and tail (the opposite of what is described in historic references), and the body does not look very stocky with its very long legs and the not all too large head. Wild markings of whatever colour morph, like dark legs, a dark mouth (black dun), mealy mouth (bay and bay dun), leg or shoulder striping or an eel stripe (dun) all are absent. Ok, the eel stripe maybe was not visible from that view, and the coat is very dark overall. There is a lightly coloured belly at least. Maybe it’s colour was dark bay without pangare or a dark expression of black dun, but we can’t tell if it isn't just any domestic colour. It may have had white markings in its coat, but the quality of the photo simply is not high enough to tell. It was measured 133 cm at the withers, about the right size of a wild horse - but also many domestic horses/ponies are of this size. 

In conclusion, the “Cherson Tarpan” was very likely either just a feral horse or a of feral horse with a certain degree of Tarpan blood (what might explain its reportedly aggressive behaviour). It certainly does not resemble one of the five wild horse phenotypes closely enough to be considered a pure or nearly pure Tarpan – this is not only my opinion, but also that of the majority of authors. Although photos are more descriptive than reconstructions, if you want to show how the Tarpan most likely looked like, I do not recommend to use that photo.


  • Tadeusz Jezierski, Zbigniew Jaworski: Das Polnische Konik. 2008.
  • Bunzel-Drüke, Finck, Kämmer, Luick, Reisinger, Riecken, Riedl, Scharf & Zimball: „Wilde Weiden: Praxisleitfaden für Ganzjahresbeweidung in Naturschutz und Landschaftsentwicklung“. 2011 


  1. Nice post!!! I'm an Italian student of Environmental Biology and I agree with you!!! It was demonstrated the introgression of Equus ferus ferus in Equus ferus caballus. . . I think we can find the wild horse in Dna of Exmoor Pony, Fjord horse, Garrano pony, Retuerta horse....It was also demonstrated in my Alma Mater (University of Pavia) The introgression of Auroch DNA in domestic cattle for example in the Italian Cabannina!!! Breeding back is not a swindle! It's demonstrated by Molecular Bilology!!

    1. Hi, thank you!! I'm glad you like the post. Yep, I agree with you; introgression of wild horses in Europe is very probable (I'll cover the primitive horse breeds in a future post soon), and introgression of the Aurochs is currently being studied by various scientists. I'm very curious on which cattle breeds turn out to be closest to the aurochs, it will certainly be relevant for the Tauros Programme (that I will cover here soon).

  2. Some informations about the Zebro:

    1. About the Tarpan (etc.):

    2. http://www.beringia.com/research/bison.html

    3. http://www.gigantesdaeradogelo.com.br/