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News / Life / Pets & Wildlife

Outer Banks wild horses thwart spread of destructive invasive plant – by eating it

By Mark Price, The Charlotte Observer
Published: July 2, 2021, 6:00am

An invasive plant that grows in thick mats over water has met its match on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

Wild horses on the barrier islands have developed a sweet tooth for watermilfoil, including an odd procedure for eating it that involves standing belly-deep in water for hours at a time.

The Corolla Wild Horse Fund shared video on Facebook of one such scene, showing a horse plucking watermilfoil out of a canal in Carova Beach.

“Milfoil is a favorite among the Banker horses,” Corolla herd manager Meg Puckett said. “It does not have a lot of calories, so the horses have to eat a lot of it for it to be actually nutritious.

“Not many other animals will eat it. It grows in the canals (which are man-made), but also in the marsh and along the sound side,” she continued. “Wildlife folks spend a lot of time trying to keep it under control, because it can choke out an ecosystem so quickly.”

Historians believe the mustangs that roam the Outer Banks were left behind 500 years ago by colonists and have adapted to survive on the barrier islands. This includes specialized ways of finding food and water.

Their diet consists of “sea oats, coarse grasses, acorns, persimmons, and other native vegetation,” Visitcurrituck.com reports. The horses have also learned how to swim from island to island when food and water become scarce.

Eurasian watermilfoil made its way to the U.S. as an ornamental aquarium plant in the 1940s. It “is now considered one of the worst aquatic weeds, occurring in nearly every state,” according to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.