4.4 Million Year Old Ethiopian Horse Species Fills In The Gap In Equestrian Evolution
A fossil site in Ethiopia has yielded a surprise find promising to fill a missing piece in the evolutionary history of horses, according to a study published in Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
A 4.4 million year old fossilized animal found in the Afar region in Ethiopia was determined to be a horse the size of a small zebra. The horse species is named Eurygnathohippus woldegabrieli, after geologist Giday Wolde Gabriel. According to the scientists who discovered the animal, it likely grazed the grassland and shrubby woods and had three toed hooves.
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The identification of the fossil horse is the result of ongoing work spanning over a decade. The first E. woldegabrieli teeth and bones were found in 2001 in the Gona area within Afar region, according to Scott Simpson, professor of anatomy at Case Western Reserve's School of Medicine, and coauthor of the study.
Other than filling in the gap in the evolutionary history of horses, the study is important in dating the fossil site and in reconstructing pre-human forbears' habitats. Among several more fossils found out in the arid badlands of the Ethiopian desert included "the two ends of the foreleg bone-the canon-brilliant white and well preserved in the red-tinted earth," according to Simpson.
Many pieces were found and pieced together over the years. For instance, a year after finding the foreleg bone, the researchers found a part of the connecting shaft, split lengthwise, indicating that this species was an adept runner comparable to modern zebras.
Compared to the ancestral horses from 6 to 10 million years ago, the newly discovered fossil horse had longer legs and taller teeth with crowns worn flatter. The longer legs helped them escape their predators faster while the shape of their teeth indicated their adaptation to grazing. Grasses, according to Simpson, "wear the teeth down and leave a characteristic signature of pits and scratches on the teeth so we can reliably reconstruct their ancient diets."
The fossil analysis team was led by Raymond L. Bernor, a horse expert from the Laboratory of Evolutionary Biology at the Howard University College of Medicine in Washington D.C. The bones are now preserved at the National Museum in Ethiopia.
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