Researchers discovered a new genus of extinct horses that once roamed North America and lived until the end of the ice age. The new genus was named Haringtonhippus francisci, which is derived from the name of Canadian paleontologist Richard Harington, who first studied its fossils years ago.
The findings of the discovery were published in the journal eLife on November 28. The study was based on the analysis of ancient DNA from fossils of the horses described as “New World stilt-legged horse.” The fossils were excavated from Natural Trap Cave in Wyoming, Gypsum Cave in Nevada, and the Klondike goldfields of Canada’s Yukon Territory, according to Phys.org.
The new extinct horses were thin-limbed and lightly built. They were thought to be related to the Asiatic wild ass or onager but dissimilar to the genus Equus that includes asses, horses, and zebras. They were not also related to any living population of horses.
Meanwhile, Harington, who is also an emeritus curator of quaternary paleontology at the Canadian Museum of Nature, was delighted to have this new genus named after him. Co-author Grant Zazula said that this find would not have been possible without Harington’s “life-long dedication” to studying the stilt-legged horse in Canada’s North. He further said that there is no other scientist who has had greater impact in the field of ice age paleontology in Canada than Dick, as noted by the CTV News.
The findings suggest that these new horses were widespread in North America together with the population of Equus, yet they were not interbreeding. They survived until about 17,000 years ago, “more than 19,000 years later than previously known from this region,” according to Phys.org. They became extinct in North America at the end of the last ice age together with other big animals such as woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats. However, the Equus survived in Eurasia which led to domestic horses, yet the stilt-legged Haringtonhippus had reached its end.
Peter Heintzman, the first study author from UC Santa Cruz, said that this deep fossil record has been a model system for understanding and teaching evolution. He further said that now, the ancient DNA has rewritten the evolutionary history of this iconic group.