DNA analysis reveals previously unknown horse genus

A new study has revealed a previously unknown genus of extinct horses that once lived in North America during the last ice age.
By Delila James | Dec 01, 2017
A new study by an international team of researchers has revealed a previously unknown genus of extinct horses that once lived in North America during the last ice age.

The findings are published in the journal eLife.

Before this study, the "New World stilt-legged horse" was believed to be related to the Asiatic onager, or wild ass or, possibly, to a separate species within the genus Equus, which includes modern-day horses, asses, and zebras. But genetic analysis of the fossils revealed a different story.

Scientists analyzed genetic material from fossils excavated from sites in Wyoming, Nevada, and Canada's Yukon Territory. To their surprise, they discovered that these ancient horses were not closely related to any living population of horses.

Apparently diverging from the main family of Equus about 4 to 6 million years ago, the stilt-legged horse is now named Haringtonhippus francisci.

"The horse family, thanks to its rich and deep fossil record, has been a model system for understanding and teaching evolution," said first author Peter Heintzman, a postdoctoral researcher at University of California, Santa Cruz, in a statement. "Now ancient DNA has rewritten the evolutionary history of this iconic group."

The team named the new horse after Richard Harrington, emeritus curator of Quaternary Paleontology at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, who first described the stilt-legged horse in the early 1970s.

"I had been curious for many years concerning the identity of two horse metatarsal bones I collected, one from Klondike, Yukon, and the other from Lost Chicken Creek, Alaska," said Harington. "They looked like those of modern Asiatic kiangs, but thanks to the research of my esteemed colleagues they are now known to belong to a new genus. I am delighted to have this new genus named after me."

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