Tracking the origins of Yakutian horses and the genetic basis for their fast adaptation to subarctic environments

Pablo Librado, Clio Der Sarkissian, Luca Ermini, Mikkel Schubert, Hákon Jónsson, Anders Albrechtsen, Matteo Fumagalli, Melinda A. Yang, Cristina Gamba, Andaine Seguin-Orlando, Cecilie D. Mortensen, Bent Petersen, Cindi A. Hoove, Belen Lorente-Galdos, Artem Nedoluzhko, Eugenia Boulygina, Svetlana Tsygankova, Markus Neuditschko, Vidhya Jagannathan, Catherine ThèvesAhmed H. Alfarhan, Saleh A. Alquraishi, Khaled A.S. Al-Rasheid, Thomas Sicheritz-Ponten, Ruslan Popov, Semyon Grigoriev, Anatoly N. Alekseev, Edward M. Rubin, Molly McCue, Stefan Rieder, Tosso Leeb, Alexei Tikhonov, Eric Crubézy, Montgomery Slatkin, Tomas Marques-Bonet, Rasmus Nielsen, Eske Willerslev, Juha Kantanen, Egor Prokhortchouk, Ludovic Orlando*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

107 Citations (Scopus)


Yakutia, Sakha Republic, in the Siberian Far East, represents one of the coldest places on Earth, with winter record temperatures dropping below-70 °C. Nevertheless, Yakutian horses survive all year round in the open air due to striking phenotypic adaptations, including compact body conformations, extremely hairy winter coats, and acute seasonal differences in metabolic activities. The evolutionary origins of Yakutian horses and the genetic basis of their adaptations remain, however, contentious. Here, we present the complete genomes of nine present-day Yakutian horses and two ancient specimens dating from the early 19th century and ∼5,200 y ago. By comparing these genomes with the genomes of two Late Pleistocene, 27 domesticated, and three wild Przewalski's horses, we find that contemporary Yakutian horses do not descend from the native horses that populated the region until the mid-Holocene, but were most likely introduced following the migration of the Yakut people a few centuries ago. Thus, they represent one of the fastest cases of adaptation to the extreme temperatures of the Arctic. We find cisregulatorymutations to have contributed more than nonsynonymous changes to their adaptation, likely due to the comparatively limited standing variation within gene bodies at the time the population was founded. Genes involved in hair development, body size, and metabolic and hormone signaling pathways represent an essential part of the Yakutian horse adaptive genetic toolkit. Finally, we find evidence for convergent evolution with native human populations and woolly mammoths, suggesting that only a few evolutionary strategies are compatible with survival in extremely cold environments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E6889-E6897
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number50
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Adaptation
  • Ancient genomics
  • Horse
  • Population discontinuity
  • Regulatory changes


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