Unique Dart Takes DNA Samples

The wild horse DNA testing program faced two major hurdles that nearly brought it to a halt last year. The cost of obtaining the samples was escalating geometrically (partly because of the expense of the exotic tranquilizers needed) and the level of trauma to the horses was unacceptable. Since the horses are wild they live at a far more sensitive and highly tuned level than domestic horses. They are more 'up' and, in one case, three times the dose to utterly knock out a domestic horse failed to cause more than a slight buckling of the knees in a stallion. Subsequent roping and obtaining the blood sample were obviously not the way to do it since we are trying to keep actual intervention with the horses to a minimum.

A marine mammal geneticist who visited Abaco last year kindly provided Arkwild with some sketches of a biopsy dart that had been developed for land mammals in the 1980's. These sketches were sent to Miami, FL where a company named Small Parts, Inc. took the sketches and further suggestions and came up with a prototype dart tip which could be delivered by blowpipe.

The tips are a great success. Before, there was no way of knowing whether any particular attempt to get blood would be successful. Often a whole day was spent trying to get a sample from one horse. In addition to the cost of a day’s salary for the vet was the cost of renting a car for his transportation and the cost of the tranquilizers. The dart has enabled the sampling of several horses in one day. Upon contact the dart removes a tiny bit of surface skin and instantly falls out. The horses react as though they've been bitten by a bug or poked by a shrub or twig. They start to graze again almost immediately, there is no recovery time, no anxiety, no stress.

The sample is put into a small tube of saline solution and put into a small ice chest. When the samples are brought back to Marsh Harbour they are taken to the airport and flown to Freeport where a vet picks them up and sends them to the US via Federal Express. The samples usually arrive at UCLA genetics laboratory or the University of Kentucky lab within 36 hours. By June 1, 2000 all the horses had been tested and we are waiting for final results.

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