Though still in the early stages, there are two back-breeding programs using selected lines of Italian horses to recreate the extinct Neapolitan horse.
“Back-breeding animals is possible because much of the genetic material of the extinct wild ancestors and subspecies survived in the domestic progeny or in surviving related subspecies. This can cause animals that resemble the original extinct ancestor or an extinct subspecies. Back-breeding has an advantage over cloning because it creates an entire population, rather than just an individual animal.” (Maas PHJ)
But for a species to survive, once it’s brought back to life, it must have enough genetic variability to reproduce…
“A population needs to be adaptive,” says Johan Van Arendonk, a professor of animal breeding and genetics at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, adding “the Dutch project probably needs to produce at least 100 animals to succeed in the long-term.”
The Napoletano Horse
Giuseppe Maresca is a coffee merchant from Naples who has dedicated his life to chasing down the Napoletano horse. Maresca found a stallion in the 1980s (already well advanced in age) working as a plough-horse in war-torn Serbia, that he claims was the last Napoletano horse.
The stallion, known as ‘Il Vecchio’ was brought back to Italy at a great expense (he was blocked at the border for two days) and then put to stud. It took many years to produce a foal, but eventually, a colt was born. Sadly, the (now very valuable) stallion died in a paddock accident, when his groom left the door to his box open and he escaped.
Luckily, old Vecchio left an heir. Napoletano, who was the founder of Maresca’s breeding program. His prodigy, Napoletano III is now 10 years old. The Napolitano horse had its stud book reopened. Marescas’ breeding program often shows his horses at regional shows and events. In 2018, 24 Napolitano horses were registered in Italy.
Formalized studbooks and breed registries are a fairly recent development in the horse world mostly developed in the last century. During the Renaissance, the term razze was better described as a certain type of horse which pertained to the suitability of a horse to a specific environment and riding style of the time.
Maresca’s program is chiefly aimed at recreating the type of Neapolitan horse once found around the bay of Naples, going back as far as Ancient Pompeii. He does not seek to back-breed the heavier warhorse type, but rather finer horses like those mentioned in ancient texts and seen in paintings.
The Corsiero Napolitano
The other documented breeding recovery program is that of Giuseppe Maria Fraddosio known as the Corsiero Napolitano project. In Fraddosio’s program, the horses used were carefully determined using historical and zootechnical research. These horses are from two of the Neapolitans closest descendants, the Murgese and Lipizzaner. The Murgese line used is that of Nerone/Conte di Conversano, which extends back to the Conversano stud (the same stud that produced the Lipizzaner stallion of the same name). Lipizzaners are also used in the program, but only certain lines. Apparently other breeds based on Neapolitan blood such as the Kaldruber from Hungary are also accepted.
The revival of extinct species of animals is a controversial topic and one that has made headlines for many of the wrong reasons.
Two of the most famous zoological scientists once worked for the Nazi regime.
Lutz and Heinz Heck attempted to recreate the extinct tarpan. This animal held a special fascination to Nazi German nationalists. The last wild tarpan died after being chased by humans over a cliff in the Ukraine in 1876.
After the Nazi invasion of Poland, German forces took whole herds of closely related Konik horses back to Germany, where they part of genetic experiments trying to back-breed the Tarpan. They also used Gotland horses, Icelandic ponies and the Przewalski horse; aiming to bring out the primitive genes by back-breeding these horses together. When the Russians invaded Germany, most of these horses were sadly eaten by the starving population.
The few survivors could repopulate the national parks of Poland under Soviet occupation. Today, these horses are known as Heck horses and have been released into many of the wetlands of Europe; their grazing habits have been recognized as essential to keeping these areas habitable to other species.
A similar selective breeding program has been quietly plugging away in South Africa to recreate the extinct Quagga using specially marked examples of a subspecies of the plains zebra.
Dog breeds that have been successfully brought back from extinction include the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and the Irish Wolfhound. There is an interesting revival attempt on the medieval Alaunt dog in the USA, while a back-breeding experiment in Honolulu to bring back the Hawaiian Poi dog was considered a failure after 12 years.
Spanish scientists used cloning to recreate an ibex that disappeared in 2000 and in Poland a group is trying to clone the Auroch using DNA from bone and teeth samples. There is even a team of scientists working to clone the Mammoth.
Do We Need to Recreate What Was Lost?
Bringing extinct animals back to life is no longer only for the realm of fantasy. The scientific tools are better than ever before. But is it ethical to bring back animals that have died off?
What happens when scientists play around with larger extinct animals? This could easily become a dangerous game aka Jurassic Park, or that prehistoric Shark horror film?
By recreating the lost horse breeds of Southern Italy, breeders may be able to produce the horses, but can they produce the original conditions in which they flourished? Our track record is not reassuring. Fashion is fickle, when European equestrians decided classical riding was out, and fox hunting was in. The Neapolitan horse no longer served a purpose. He was not built for fast and furious cross country gallops and hurdling fences. He was built for war.
Renaissance texts described the Neapolitan horse as having a difficult character- perhaps he was best suited for brave and technically skilled riders too?
If the goal really is to bring back the Neapolitan horses’ former glory and not merely show two or three examples to the public for the sense of achievement, then bringing back the Neapolitan horse means sustained effort, organized breeding and careful promotion of the best examples produced.
This means raising horses with the care and attention they deserve. Magnificent horses need more than just correct confirmation; they need generations of observance, ability, character, and a unique aptitude to work.
Rather than bringing back what we have lost, would we not be better concentrated on helping those at risk of extinction instead? Perhaps the descendants of the very Neapolitan horse we miss so much? Or did the Neapolitano simply evolve into these breeds, which were more versatile?
As horses become less and less necessary, many ancient breeds are at risk of extinction. Of the 87 horse breeds that have gone extinct in the last 100 years, 71 were European breeds.
Let’s hope we don’t lose anymore of these special living cultural symbols.
Bunzel-Drüke 2001; Heck & Heck 1934; Heck s.a.; Slob 1966
Maas, P.H.J. (2011). Recreating extinct animals by selective Breeding. In: TSEW (2013). The Sixth Extinction Website. Downloaded on 21 February 2013.
Stephan Faris (2010) Breeding ancient cattle back from extinction
Heck, H. & L. Heck (1934): Die Rückzüchtung des altdeutschen Waldpferdes. — Das Tier und wir 1934 (7): 10–14.
M Gales book ‘Sketches of Naples and Rome” THE PENNY MAGAZINE OF THE SOCIETY FOR THE DIFFUSION OF USEFUL KNOWLEDGE (1833) Oxford University Press
Il Corsiero Napolitano by Giuseppe Maria Fraddosio
Images public domain and Cecille Zahorka (www.thepixelnomad.com)