Ethiopia holds clues to horse evolution. The equine fossils recently found were originally from an unknown species of horse. The ancient horse lived 4.4 million years ago in Ethiopia and may have even lived among the oldest known human ancestors. With three-toed hooves and about the size of a small zebra, the species called E.woldegabrieli grazed on shrubs and grass in the Ethiopian grasslands.
This little horse seems to fill the missing piece that was needed in the evolution of the horse. Scientists say this is an extremely important discovery because it helps to reconstruct the habitat location of ancient humans due to the location of the fossils. Scott Simpson, who is the co-author of the study that was published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, stated that the search team that is looking for these unique fossils are spread out in the now arid Ethiopian desert. The team found two ends of a foreleg so far, and was bleach white when found in the contrasting red earth that surrounded the bones. The Gona project then began when researchers discovered Ethiopia holds clues to horse evolution.
A split connecting shaft was also found by researchers in order to get an idea of the bone length. The bones found in Ethiopia were able to tell scientists the little, zebra-like, horse was a powerful runner and that they actually resembled modern day zebras. Scientists were also able to take a peek at some teeth that indicated the horses were primarily grass eaters. The teeth were actually much taller and flatter than their descendants, due to adaptations to eating tough grasses. The isotope configuration of the tooth enamel also confirmed the little horse’s diet. The sandpaper like grasses they fed on actually left pitting and scratches in the enamel as well.
Due to the longer legs this little horse had, they were able to outrun saber-tooth cats and hyenas much easier than other ancestral horses that lived about 6 million to 10 million years ago in forests. The fossils indicate that the little horse from Ethiopia was very different to other horses from 3.5 to 5 million years ago. Scientists have found that a younger grouping of the horse fossils also indicated that they were not only taller, but also had longer noses that proved that they were more adapted to grassland living.
The fossils were found in Gona, Ethiopia and lived among a variety of other species of animals that possibly thrived alongside early humans. A horse expert named Raymond L. Bernor, was the first to examine the new species of horse. Bernor works at the evolutionary biology department at the Howard University College of Medicine.
Hipparionines is the ancient group the little horse belongs to, due to the three-toed hooves the animal had. The animals actually came from North America before they spread out to Eurasia from a possible land bridge that connected Alaska to Siberia. Over time the horses adapted to grassland habitat which helped them to inhabit greater areas that included the small country of Ethiopia.
Finding this little horse fossil has made researchers very excited to have possibly found the missing link to how horses evolved on this earth. The scientists never knew that when they picked up the ancient equine fossils, that the little country of Ethiopia actually holds clues to the evolution of the horse.
By Tina Elliott