Evolutionary constraints on equid domestication: Comparison of flight initiation distances of wild horses (Equus caballus ferus) and plains zebras (Equus quagga)

J Comp Psychol. 2015 Nov;129(4):366-76. doi: 10.1037/a0039677. Epub 2015 Sep 7.


Habituation to humans was an essential component of horse (Equus caballus ferus) domestication, with the nondomestication of zebras (Equus quagga) possibly reflecting an adaptive constraint on habituation. We present the human hunting hypothesis, arguing that ancestral humans hunted African animals, including zebras, long enough to promote a persistent wariness of humans, whereas a briefer period of hunting horses in Central Asia influenced by glacial cycles was unlikely to produce an equally persistent wariness. An alternative habituation to humans hypothesis, prompted by field observations, posits that zebras can habituate well to nonthreatening humans given sufficient exposure. If so, other factors must account for zebra nondomestication. To examine these hypotheses, we compared the flight initiation distances (FIDs) of wild horses in the United States and plains zebras in Africa to a human approaching on foot (N = 87). We compared the flight behavior of both species at sites with low and high exposure to humans (mean humans/acre = .004 and .209, respectively). Analyses revealed a significant interaction (p = .0001) between equid species and level of human exposure. The mean FIDs of horses (146 m) and zebras (105 m) with low human exposure did not differ appreciably (p = .412), but these distances were substantially longer (p < .0001) than those of horses (17 m) and zebras (37 m) with high human exposure that did differ significantly (p < .0001). The finding that plains zebras habituate less completely to humans than horses do might reflect an adaptive response to historical hunting and partly explain their resistance to domestication.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Africa
  • Animals
  • Animals, Domestic / psychology
  • Animals, Wild / psychology*
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Equidae / psychology*
  • Female
  • Habituation, Psychophysiologic / physiology
  • Horses / psychology*
  • Male
  • Species Specificity
  • United States