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An interesting twist on animal history


I was intrigued to read that the semi-wild horse herd on Assateague Island, off the shores of Maryland and Virginia, may have a more interesting ancestry than previously thought.

Where did the ponies come from? Until recently, most historians and scientists have thought that the herd grew from horses left to graze by English settlers. Local folklore, however, told a different tale — that the ponies escaped from the wreck of a Spanish galleon. While the coast has seen many shipwrecks, there is no record of any such Spanish wreck carrying horses.

Now, there is evidence that the legend of the Spanish galleon may be plausible. National Geographic reports that DNA preserved in a fossilized horse tooth found 1,200 miles away in the Caribbean may lend credence to this supposedly mythical shipwreck. In a study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers posit that the tooth belonged to a cousin of the ponies roving Virginia and Maryland’s barrier islands.

Importantly, both the Caribbean horse and Chincoteague ponies share an evolutionary lineage that originated in Bronze Age Spain, says study co-author Nicolas Delsol, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Florida.

. . .

Beyond identifying the origins of the ponies, Delsol believes this tooth fragment has an even greater story to tell: It hints that Spanish settlers were sailing further north into the mid-Atlantic region when their ship sank.

There's more at the link.

We know that the mustang herds out west had their origins in Spanish colonial-era horses, either lost by their owners or stolen by Native American tribes.  Their numbers grew as the USA expanded westward, and horses escaped or were lost by cowboys and settlers and joined their wild cousins.  However, all the "wild" horses on the east coast had traditionally been assumed to have been lost from English colonies.  This DNA evidence changes that.

The most remarkable thing to me is that the horses survived a shipwreck at all.  When carried on a sailing ship, they would normally have been confined in makeshift stalls erected in the hold.  They would have to be lowered into the hold, and swung up out of it, using slings passed beneath their bodies, and blindfolded to stop them struggling.  I'd have thought that a ship foundering at sea, or going aground on the coast, would have sunk or broken up without there being any opportunity to get the horses out of the hold.  Was it just one or two wrecks that produced the herd, or was it several, with only a few horses surviving each time, then getting together on the offshore island to form a herd?  Fascinating speculation, but I suppose we'll never know for sure.


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