CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Freakishly warm January temperatures are having a strange effect on the wild horses roaming North Carolina's Outer Banks, prompting a warning to drivers.
The notoriously independent horses are sleeping on the beaches at night -- in the path of recreational vehicles.
"Please be careful!" the Corolla Wild Horse Fund posted Sunday on Facebook. "We don't normally expect to see horses on the beach this time of year, but the unseasonably warm weather has them acting more like it's June, not January."
Temperatures have been in the 60s and 70s across the Carolinas for days, and that warmth will continue much of this week, forecasters say.
This is typically the time of year when wild horses stay hidden in the maritime forest, shielding themselves from cold winds. If temperatures get too warm, the bugs come out and the horses are forced to the beaches for a reprieve from being bitten, experts say.
Recreational vehicle enthusiast Daniel T. Myers III posted photos of the horses in the dark on Corova beach Sunday, warning other drivers to "keep a look out." His warning has been shared hundreds of times by 4x4 Facebook groups.
Myers said he was driving a truck on the beach when he saw the horses, and he feared an accident could occur. The beach in the Corova area "is the only way for residents and visitors to reach the areas north of Corolla," according to Outer Banks news outlet OBX Today.
"I sat there with my flashers on so they couldn't get hit. Very hard to see a horse on the beach," he said in a Facebook message to McClatchy News. "This time of year, it is rare. ... They're out there enjoying the beach like everyone, but sleeping."
Four-wheel drives are welcomed by law on some Outer Banks beaches, but the vehicles (and pedestrians) are required to stay 50 feet away from the wild horses, according to VisitCurrituck.com.
Collisions with vehicles have been a chief cause of death among the wild horses on the Outer Banks, including incidents of horses crossing paved highways during the height of the tourist season.
Traffic deaths involving the wild horses were common between 1985 and 1996, when 21 were killed, according to the Outer Banks Voice. Protective measures were put in place to keep the horses off major roads, including fences, the newspaper reported.
The feral horses are thought to be descended from Spanish Mustangs brought to the North Carolina coast by explorers four centuries ago, according to VisitCurrituck.com.
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