Observing wild horses
Each summer, University of Saskatchewan researchers study horses on remote Sable Island
By Andrea Hill, The Starphoenix
University of Saskatchewan professor Philip McLoughlin observes wild horses on Sable Island. Submitted photo.
Philip McLoughlin has never been a horse person. In fact, he says he’s always been uncomfortable around those “equestrian people” who seem to live in completely different worlds from the rest of the population.
Yet McLoughlin, a population ecologist who can often be found in a third-floor office at the University of Saskatchewan’s biology building, knows he’s living many horse lovers’ dreams.
For the last eight summers, he and a group of students have jetted across the country to Sable Island. The remote and almost uninhabited sandbar nearly 200 kilometres southeast of Nova Scotia is known and widely romanticized – for its wild horses.
McLoughlin and up to four students spend two months among the 400-plus shaggy animals, observing their health, their behaviours and how they interact with each other.
From July to September, the Saskatoon researchers – who make up roughly half the island’s population – take a close look at how each individual animal contributes to the group.
“It’s basically trying to see how a population ticks from its individual components,” McLoughlin said. “We can ask all sorts of interesting questions.”
Horse droppings are collected and their parasites analyzed. Hair is bagged and tested for hormones.
Special cameras equipped with lasers are used to determine the animals’ size.
Over time, the crew will be able to answer an array of questions on horse evolution: the effects of individual personality on survival, how antibiotic resistance spreads in a population isolated from modern medicine, and other topics. “It’s definitely not just a study of the horses on this island,” McLoughlin said.
For Sarah Medill, a “horse-crazy kid”-turned-PhD student who’s spent the last four summers on Sable Island, spending months among the wild animals never gets old.
“Four years in, I still get that feeling a lot of the time that wow, it’s still pretty cool to be out here and doing this,” she said.
Wow-factor aside, Medill and her colleagues work hard during the summer. They rise early, often counting parasites in feces before sitting down to breakfast. From there, they disperse across the treeless, crescent-shaped island, which measures about 50 kilometres long by 1.5 kilometres wide.
Grey seals – the world’s largest colony calls Sable Island home – can often be seen lounging on beaches or cruising in the waves.
Countless birds, including Ipswich sparrows that breed only on the island, flit overhead.
Some students will walk 10 to 15 kilometres a day, photographing bands of horses and recording notes about their behaviour. Others identify animals for which they need fecal samples, then sit patiently, waiting for the horses to deliver.
“It’s pretty tiring work to be walking in sand for 15 kilometres, so it’s nice, every couple of days, to be able to just sit and watch,” Medill said.
The PhD student is perhaps the only person in the world who can identify every horse on the island by sight, amazing even McLoughlin with her abilities. Some horses with unique body markings are easy to recognize, but most are identified by subtleties in scars, wrinkles, whiskers and the growths on the inside of their legs known as chestnuts.
“I’m better at recognizing the horses on Sable than I am with most people walking around in my neighbourhood. It freaks me out,” Medill said.
Each horse is given a unique name and number. The U of S group has a database with information on more than 900 animals that have lived on the island since 2007, when McLoughlin, who had just come to Saskatoon from the University of Cambridge, conducted his first pilot project.
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