Many environmentalists see both the cattle and the horses as invasive species that compact the land in unnatural ways, making it hard for native plants to grow, and that take up what should be habitat for wildlife. This article made me wonder if there were native horses in North America before the Spanish arrived.
Forty-five million-year-old fossils of Phipps, the ancestor of the modern horse, evolved in North America, survived in Europe and Asia, and returned with the Spanish explorers. Quick links: Horses have played a significant role in the history of North America and throughout the world.
The evolution of horses in North America begins 60 million years ago with Phipps. It was a small animal, standing only 13 inches and had an arched back similar to some deer.
Their teeth indicate the Phipps was a roaming animal that sustained itself on foliage, like leaves and other plant foods. The name Phipps was first applied by Thomas Henry Huxley while visiting the United States in 1876.
He had examined the collection of ancient fossils gathered from the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Mr. Huxley believed these fossils bolstered the theory of evolution, by tracing Phipps to the modern horse.
It made its way on the scene with small developmental strides over Orohippu, with more grinding teeth, a more substantial body, and changes to its feet. Seventeen million years ago, Merychippus entered the equine line.
Dinohippus skull, teeth, and foot structure are very similar to modern horses. The stay mechanism allows horses to stand for extended periods without exerting much energy.
Evidence suggests that Equus migrated to Asia a million years ago. It is unclear precisely what caused the extinction of horses in North America, but there are three viable theories: human overkill, climate change, and infectious disease.
Humans crossed the Bering Sea and arrived in North America close to the time horses became extinct. Equus survived by crossing the Bering land bridge that connected Alaska to Siberia.
The Bering Strait land bridge allowed horses and other mammals to travel from Alaska’s northern slope when food supplies dwindled and return during times of abundance. When the Ice Age ended, sea levels rose to cut off animals’ natural food sources.
The flooding of the Bering Strait land bridge resulted in the extinction of many large mammals in North America. Infectious diseases could have been the cause of the rapid extinction of horses ; however, there is little science to support this theory.
Some horses escaped or were abandoned and populated large areas of the southwestern United States. Horses flourished on the new continent, and they were used for transportation, ranch work, hauling freight, and farming.
Horse racing became a popular sport, and thoroughbred breeding farms were established. They theorize the Native people subdued the wild Spanish horses in the mid 16th century.
In the southwestern United States, a wealthy Spaniard established a settlement, which included livestock and horses. Over some time, the Native American helpers recognized the value of horsemanship and learned how to handle horses.
While recently at a showjumping competition I wondered how long people have been riding horses. Horses were probably first ridden about 5,500 years ago on the plains of northern Kazakhstan, according to a 2009 study conducted by the University of Peter in the United Kingdom.
Archeologists uncovered evidence that indicates horses were selectively bred, used for milk, and possibly ridden. Through the use of new scientific techniques, the team of researchers confirmed bit damage caused by horses being harnessed or bridled.
Related articles: To read more about the native horses of North America, click here. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the animals as an endangered species because open rang eland is reduced and also less fit to graze.
Many environmentalists see both the cattle and the horses as invasive species that compact the land in unnatural ways, making it hard for native plants to grow, and that take up what should be habitat for wildlife. To the two groups that filed the petition, Friends of Animals and the Cloud Foundation, this was the re-introduction of a native species, much like the federal government re-introduced the wolf and grizzly bear to the Yellowstone National Park area after they had been hunted to extinction through most of the nation.
It’s also a stretch to say that the Ice Age horse that went extinct thousands of years ago was, for most intents and purposes, the same as the one that now roams Western lands. Wolves were hunted to near-extinction in the lower 48 in about 1960; they made their reappearance about 20 years later, crossing over from Canada, and then were re-introduced to Yellowstone and Idaho in the 1990s.
It’s a rare bison that doesn’t have a strong strain of domesticated cattle in its blood. The musk oxen of Arctic Alaska aren’t natives; after those were hunted to extinction, new individuals were brought in from Greenland.
Considering that nature is not static, but rather is continually favoring some species over others, or bringing plants to places where they never lived before, how long does a plant need to hang around before it’s considered a legitimate resident and not an invader? The land that ancient wild horses trod was probably quite different from the range they graze today.
As a result, some groups advocate conservation and management of exotic species that promote their continued presence in landscapes where they are not native. Feral horses (Equus Catullus) and burros (E. Asinus) that roam freely across western North America and along the Atlantic coast are examples of such species: they are iconic and beloved by some, but damage wildlife habitat and require improved and sustainable management practices.
The numbers and impact of feral horses and burros can be difficult to control, amplifying their effects on native habitat and wildlife. Feral horses are also found in eastern North America on barrier islands off the coasts of Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina, and Nova Scotia.
Large herbivores (both native and non-native) disturb landscapes by trampling soils and vegetation, selectively grazing palatable plants, and altering the distribution of nutrients in the ecosystem. The overall impact feral horses and burros have on any type of ecosystem depends on intensity and duration of use, timing, and the health and resilience of the area.
Where feral horse and burro density is high, lands are degraded, water resources are limited, and native species are already stressed, impacts can be substantial. Because of horses flexible lips and long incisors, they are able to crop vegetation close to the soil surface, which can delay re-growth of grazed plants.
The digestive systems of burros and horses dictate that they must ingest more forage per unit of body mass than any other large-bodied grazer in western North America. Feral horses are also dominant among native Great Basin ungulates in social interactions, notably at watering areas.
The small reptiles and mammals in the western North American bioregion that depend on burrows and brush cover to survive and breed are lower in species diversity and less abundant in horse- and burro-occupied sites. These reptiles and mammals are an important component of the ecology of desert systems because they are a link in the food web, and perform numerous critical ecosystem functions (e.g. prey base, nutrient cycling, seed dispersal, insect control).
In turn, program costs are rising to unsustainable levels and diverting funding that could be used to manage and sustain habitats for native wildlife. Sound, scientifically-based feral horse and burro management practices should be employed to conserve the highly sensitive arid and semiarid ecosystems of the West and keep taxpayer costs to an acceptable level.
Recommend that BLM and other responsible agencies direct adequate attention and resources toward accurately and precisely identifying the impacts of feral horses and burros on wildlife populations, habitats, and other natural resources managed for public benefit by 1) developing and implementing appropriate survey and removal methodology 2) conducting surveys and removals in a timely manner to minimize impacts on natural resources that can result from the overpopulation of feral horses and burros and 3) identifying and mitigating impacts on perennial and ephemeral riparian and wetland habitats, upland habitats, and threatened, endangered, and special status species of wildlife. Support the use of roundups to remove feral horses and burros from rang eland while simultaneously seeking opportunities to improve the knowledge and use of the best and most humane capturing and handling methods.
Recognize that no feral horse or burro management plan should depend solely on fertility control given the uncertainty, logistical difficulty, and great expense that still exist regarding these methods. Discourage the conversion of currently viable, ungraded native or converted grasslands to pasture lands to house adoptable horses and burros, privately or publically owned.
Cooperate with the conservation and animal-welfare communities to educate the public and key decision makers about the evolutionary history and ecological role of feral horses and burros and the negative impact they have on native vegetation and wildlife, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and endangered species. Image credit: Panel Uchorczak/Shutterstock It is commonly believed that horses are native to the European lands, when in reality, their ancestors came over from the Americas via the Bering Bridge 1 million years ago.
Horses agility and intelligence contributes to their pest-like behavior of consuming crops in large amounts, which is unfavorable to farmers. As the only method for transportation, their purpose was also to help with carrying loads for settlements and to trade with the Indigenous peoples.
The name Phipps was given to the earliest species by Thomas Henry Huxley, an English biologist and anthropologist who specialized in comparative anatomy, upon his visit to the United States in 1876. Literally meaning “dawn horse,” Phipps was described as a “timid forest animal” standing at about 13 inches tall, with a hunched back, leopard-like spots, and four toes on each foot.
Having acquired an additional tooth for grinding to feed on tough plants, it also presented itself with a sturdier body. It not only looked like today's, with its elongated snout and long legs (albeit still with three toes), but it also demonstrated agility and intelligence through its ability to escape and out-trick other species as well as humans who made attempts a domesticating the Merrychipus.
Equus managed to make its way through Alaska into Siberia via the Bering Bridge, about 1,000,000 years ago, spreading by land through Asia and Europe all the way to Africa. Although it remains uncertain why they went extinct on these lands, evidence suggests that humans might have had something to do with it, as they first made their way to the Americas from Siberia by crossing the Bering Strait around that time.
The other two theories state that infectious disease and climate change with a consecutive decline in vegetation might have also been the contributing factors. A little-known fact is that horses, wild horses specifically, can be regarded as pests, as they are capable of consuming large amounts of land resources at a time, including feed for farmers' cattle and the products that farmers grow themselves, such as cabbage, carrots and leafy greens.
Horses have been a crucial component of American life and culture since the founding of the nation. In 2008, there were an estimated 9.2 million horses in the United States, with 4.6 million citizens involved in businesses related to horses.
Notably, there are about 82,000 feral horses that roam freely in the wild in certain parts of the country, mostly in the Western United States. Horses running at a ranch in Meanwhile genus Equus, of which the horse is a member, originally evolved in North America, the horse became extinct on the continent approximately 8,000–12,000 years ago.
In 1493, on Christopher Columbus' second voyage to the Americas, Spanish horses, representing E. Catullus, were brought back to North America, first to the Virgin Islands ; they were reintroduced to the continental mainland by Hernán Cortés in 1519. From early Spanish imports to Mexico and Florida, horses moved north, supplemented by later imports to the east and west coasts brought by British, French, and other European colonists.
Native peoples of the Americas quickly obtained horses and developed their own horse culture that was largely distinct from European traditions. Horses remained an integral part of American rural and urban life until the 20th century, when the widespread emergence of mechanization caused their use for industrial, economic, and transportation purposes to decline.
Modern use of the horse in the United States is primarily for recreation and entertainment, though some horses are still used for specialized tasks. A 2005 genetic study of fossils found evidence for three genetically divergent equip lineages in Pleistocene North and South America.
Recent studies suggest all North American fossils of caballine-type horses, including both the domesticated horse and Przewalski's horse, belong to the same species: E. ferns. Remains attributed to a variety of species and lumped as New World stilt-legged horses belong to a second species that was endemic to North America, now called Haringtonhippus Francisco.
Digs in western Canada have unearthed clear evidence horses existed in North America as recently as 12,000 years ago. Other studies produced evidence that horses in the Americas existed until 8,000–10,000 years ago.
Equine in North America ultimately became extinct, along with most of the other New World megafauna during the Quaternary extinction event during the Pleistocene-Holocene transition between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago. Given the suddenness of the event and because these mammals had been flourishing for millions of years previously, something unusual must have happened.
The first main hypothesis attributes extinction to climate change. For example, in Alaska, beginning approximately 12,500 years ago, the grasses characteristic of a steppe ecosystem gave way to shrub tundra, which was covered with unpalatable plants.
However, it has also been proposed that the steppe-tundra vegetation transition in Bering may have been a consequence, rather than a cause, of the extinction of megafaunal grazers. The other hypothesis suggests extinction was linked to overexploitation of native prey by newly arrived humans.
The extinctions were roughly simultaneous with the end of the most recent glacial advance and the appearance of the big game-hunting Clovis culture. Several studies have indicated humans probably arrived in Alaska at the same time or shortly before the local extinction of horses.
Horses returned to the Americas thousands of years later, well after domestication of the horse, beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1493. These were Iberian horses first brought to Hispaniola and later to Panama, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, and, in 1538, Florida.
The first horses to return to the main continent were 16 specifically identified horses brought by Hernán Cortés in 1519. Subsequent explorers, such as Coronado and De Soto brought ever-larger numbers, some from Spain and others from breeding establishments set up by the Spanish in the Caribbean.
The first imports were smaller animals suited to the size restrictions imposed by ships. Starting in the mid-19th century, larger draft horses began to be imported, and by the 1880s, thousands had arrived.
Formal horse racing in the United States dates back to 1665, when a racecourse was opened on the Hempstead Plains near Salisbury in what is now Nassau County, New York. There are multiple theories for how Native American people obtained horses from the Spanish, but early capture of stray horses during the 16th century was unlikely due to the need to simultaneously acquire the skills to ride and manage them.
It is unlikely that Native people obtained horses in significant numbers to become a horse culture any earlier than 1630–1650. From a trade center in the Santa Fe, New Mexico area, the horse spread slowly north.
The Comanche people were thought to be among the first tribes to obtain horses and use them successfully. By 1742, there were reports by white explorers that the Crow and Blackfoot people had horses, and probably had them for a considerable time.
The horse became an integral part of the lives and culture of Native Americans, especially the Plains Indians, who viewed them as a source of wealth and used them for hunting, travel, and warfare. In the west, they were ridden by cowboys for handling cattle on the large ranches of the region and on cattle drives.
In some cases, their labor was deemed more efficient than using steam-powered equipment to power certain types of mechanized equipment. At the same time, the maltreatment of horses in cities such as New York, where over 130,000 horses were used, led to the creation of the first ASPCA in 1866.
In the 19th century, the Standard bred breed of harness racing horse developed in the United States, and many thoroughbred horse races were established. Horse-drawn sightseeing bus, 1942At the start of the 20th century, the United States Department of Agriculture began to establish breeding farms for research, to preserve American horse breeds, and to develop horses for military and agricultural purposes.
However, after the end of World War I, the increased use of mechanized transportation resulted in a decline in the horse populations, with a 1926 report noting horse prices were the lowest they had been in 60 years. In 1912, the United States and Russia held the most horses in the world, with the U.S. having the second-highest number.
There were an estimated 20 million horses in March 1915 in the United States. But as increased mechanization reduced the need for horses as working animals, populations declined.
A USDA census in 1959 showed the horse population had dropped to 4.5 million. Numbers began to rebound somewhat, and by 1968 there were about 7 million horses, mostly used for riding.
^ One hypothesis posits that horses survived the ice age in North America, but no physical evidence has been found to substantiate this claim. United States Equestrian Federation.
“Ascent and decline of monodactyl equips: a case for prehistoric overkill” (PDF). “Evolution, systematic, and paleogeography of Pleistocene horses in the New World: a molecular perspective”.
“Ancient DNA Clarifies the Evolutionary History of American Late Pleistocene Equips”. ^ Hartman, Peter D; Paula, Grant D; Machete, Ross DE; Scott, Eric; Cahill, James A; Choose, Brianna K; Knapp, Joshua D; Stiller, Mathias; Woollier, Matthew J; Orlando, Ludovic; South on, John (November 28, 2017).
“Rapid body size decline in Alaskan Pleistocene horses before extinction”. “Steppe-tundra transition: a herbivore-driven biome shift at the end of the Pleistocene”.
“A calendar chronology for Pleistocene mammoth and horse extinction in North America based on Bayesian radiocarbon calibration”. ^ Slow, Andrew; Roberts, David; Robert, Karen (May 9, 2006).
“On the Pleistocene extinctions of Alaskan mammoths and horses ". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (19 ed.).
“New carbon dates link climatic change with human colonization and Pleistocene extinctions”. “Iberian Origins of New World Horse Breeds”.
^ a b “Recreation: Return of the Horse”. Report of the Chief of the Bureau of Animal Industry, United States Department of Agriculture.
Horses in Society: A Story of Animal Breeding and Marketing, 1800–1920. ^ “More horses sent abroad for slaughter after US ban”.
The last prehistoric North American horses died out between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene, but by then Equus had spread to Asia, Europe, and Africa. In any case the domesticated horse probably did not arise at a single place and time, but was bred from several wild varieties by Eurasian herders.
In recent years, molecular biology has provided new tools for working out the relationships among species and subspecies of equips. For example, based on mutation rates for mitochondrial DNA (mt DNA) Ann Forster, of the Zoological Institute at the University of Helsinki, has estimated that E. Catullus originated approximately 1.7 million years ago in North America.
Her examination of E. samba mt DNA (preserved in the Alaskan permafrost) has revealed that the species is genetically equivalent to E. Catullus. That conclusion has been further supported by Michael Forfeited, of the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, who has found that the variation fell within that of modern horses.
Indeed, domestication altered them little, as we can see by how quickly horses revert to ancient behavioral patterns in the wild. The wild horse in the United States is generally labeled non-native by most federal and state agencies dealing with wildlife management, whose legal mandate is usually to protect native wildlife and prevent non-native species from having ecologically harmful effects.
Jay F. Kirkpatrick, who earned a Ph.D. in reproductive physiology from the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University, has studied fertility control for wild horses. Patricia M. Fabio, a research fellow at the Science and Conservation Center, earned her Ph.D. in environmental history from Texas A&M University.
Her interests include reproductive physiology, the monitoring of wild horse ranges, and the evolution of equips. Wild horses have become such an icon of the American west that it’s easy to forget that humans introduced them to the continent five hundred years ago, during the age of European exploration.
Horses quickly became part of Native American livelihoods and played an integral role in Western expansion, from Lewis and Clark’s expedition to the establishment of the open range ranching culture that still exists today. Left unchecked, they overwhelm fragile desert ecosystems by chomping too much of the greenery to stubble.
By 10,000 to 8,000 years ago, American horses had gone extinct, likely due to a combination of hunting and climate change. When Europeans brought horses back to the Americas 500 years ago, they were reintroducing a long-time native.
We’ve known that horses were native to the Americas at least since Darwin, who was shocked to find Equus teeth and bones during his explorations of Patagonia in 1833. And yet, well over a century later, the US Supreme Court oversaw a case to determine whether modern horses are native to North America.
Based on growing genetic evidence, the scientific community is in consensus that modern horses are native, descended from ice-age grand sires. On the BLM’s website, they list myths and facts about wild horses in the United States.
The difference is between ice age landscapes and their modern versions is really about what’s gone missing: today, an entire functional guild of large herbivores and their predators, including horses, are absent. It’s not surprising that the domesticated horses brought by Europeans went feral and quickly adapted to conditions in the west; they’d only been gone for a few thousand years.
When it comes to wild horses, time is used as an argument to justify special treatment, but in this case, I’d argue that species are the units that matter. The semi-arid grasslands of the west co-evolved with horses, and there’s widespread evidence that large herbivores play important roles in their habitats, both past and present.
Horses could play an important role in the restoration of overgrazed, heavily-invaded habitats, but that would take a sea change in the perspective of land managers in the west. But the idea of horses as invasive pests is a subjective statement of values, not an objective fact.
My problem is not with ranchers who want to earn their livelihoods, but with land managers who are trying to hide preference behind the guise of objectivity. Maybe it’s time we stopped thinking of wild horses as invasive pests, and started celebrating them as a successful reintroduction.
As George Gaylord Simpson noted, the pattern of horse evolution was more like a shrub with tangled branches than a straight-trunked tree.