Claim: climate change made the modern horse, of course

From the SPANISH NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL (CSIC) and the department of “climate change, is there anything it can’t do?” comes this:

Climate change responsible for the great diversity in horses

A study led by CSIC points to environmental factors in causing the rapid expansion of species over the last 20 million years

Three species of Hipparion, that lived in the Iberian peninsula between 9 million years and 5 million years ago CREDIT MAURICIO ANTÓN

Three species of Hipparion, that lived in the Iberian peninsula between 9 million years and 5 million years ago

Changing environments and ecosystems were driving the evolution of horses over the past 20 million years. This is the main conclusion of a new study published in Science by a team of palaeontologists from Spain and Argentina. The team analysed 140 species of horses, most of them extinct, synthesising decades of research on the fossil history of this popular group of mammals.

Their conclusions challenge a classic theory, which links the evolutionary success of horses to several novel adaptations in response to the spread of grasslands around 18 million years ago. “According to the classic view, horses would have evolved faster in when grasslands appeared, developing teeth that were more resistant to the stronger wear that comes with a grass-dominated diet. They also became bigger to more effectively digest this low quality food, and as a strategy against predators in these new, open habitats”, explains Juan L. Cantalapiedra, researcher at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, Germany.

But did teeth and body size indeed evolve that fast? It seems they didn’t. According to the new results, these evolutionary changes could have been much slower than previously assumed. In fact, Cantalapiedra and colleagues were able to show that all these newly evolved species of horses were ecologically very similar. Thus, rather than a multiplication of ecological roles, the new results point to external factors, such as increasing environmental heterogeneity, as the main evolutionary force.

“Environmental changes would have produced a lot more fragmented, mosaic-type ecosystems, where populations of horses with similar demands and adaptations could have evolved isolated from one another, resulting in different species but with a similar appearance”, points Manuel Hernández Fernández at the Complutense Univerity in Madrid. “This was probably only possible in ecosystems with a lot of energy and biomass, so that very similar species, which otherwise would have been in strong competition, were all able to survive”, adds Jose Luis Prado, at the National University of the Center of Buenos Aires Province.

Diversification accelerated again two more times, “when changes in sea level allowed their migration from North America into Eurasia and Africa, 11 and 4 million years ago”, explains María Teresa Alberdi, at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid. “Then, again, new species appeared very fast, but without showing dramatic changes in appearance”, concludes Cantalapiedra.


93 thoughts on “Claim: climate change made the modern horse, of course

  1. …Claim: climate change made the modern horse, of course…
    Er… environmental change made the ‘modern’ EVERYTHING (that is, everything which evolves to match its environment).
    It also made EVERY earlier version of each thing, since these also matched their environment.
    Wallace and Darwin got there well before this team of palaeontologists…

    • The evolution of the horse is worthy of study.
      They are unusual in that they can roam widely. They are big and fast. What benefit is there to being big and fast when the area a species can live in is small or fragmented?
      The evolution of the horse is an indicator of large, homogenous environments forming. Grasslands, in other words.
      I think that’s an interesting little bit of real science.

      • That’s indeed what happened. Starting as small forest browsers, horses evolved into big, fast grazers as grasslands spread. But during the Miocene, as the area of grass expanded, the situation described in this paper might well have obtained.

      • Big and fast is necessary in an evolution sense only if the dominant predator is also big and fast. Flight or fight. The horse found the former key to success. The ability to travel long distances also helped when one region was overpopulated or food became scarce.

    • Their “conclusion” is little more than a restatement of a basic axiom of evolution. The height of vacuity.

  2. “This was probably only possible in ecosystems with a lot of energy and biomass, so that very similar species, which otherwise would have been in strong competition, were all able to survive”,
    That’s nonsense when 2 very similar species are competing in exactly the same habitats.
    Noone in peer review or scientific working in the same field to conter that?
    – there MUST have been differences: nutrition, behavior, what ever.

    • Think of muslim states:
      Shiites settle with Shiites, Sunnies settle near Sunnies.
      And the majorities request the ‘best’ habitats.

    • It appears to me that the authors find that similar species evolved in adaptation to different environments, as the forested world gave way to more diverse habitats, woods mixed with grasslands. Even today, horses, donkeys, zebras and other equines are still classified in the same genus, ie are similar species but adapted to different environments.

      • Working out subgenera and subspecies of zebras was difficult before genetic analysis. Today three species are recognized, ie Grevy’s, the plains and mountain zebras. Its genome has shown the extinct quagga to be a subspecies of the plains zebra (confusingly called E. quagga), most closely related to Burchell’s zebra, the southern subspecies of E. quagga.
        Equine chromosome numbers:
        Przewalski’s horse: 66
        Domestic horse: 64
        Donkey: 62
        Onager: 56
        Tibetan wild ass: 52
        Grv. zebra: 46
        Pln. zebra: 44
        Mtn. zebra: 32.

    • Johann,
      From the Article: –
      “The team analysed 140 species of horses”
      “Environmental changes would have produced a lot more fragmented, mosaic-type ecosystems, where populations of horses with similar demands and adaptations could have evolved isolated from one another, resulting in different species but with a similar appearance”
      A species is only a species when a competent Taxonomist/Zoologist/Palaeontologist says it is.
      A rule of thumb is that if two specimens can be told apart from across the room, they are in different genera.
      Taxonomists, Zoologists and Palaeontologists can be divided in Splitters and Lumpers.
      Splitters consider any variation cause for a new species.
      Lumpers are generally reluctant to name new species, unless, crudely, there is considerable evidence, and sexual dimorphism, and age-related variations are firmly excluded.
      It is possible that the 140 species examined in this study, some of which had a similar appearance to others, may have been created by Splitters or by Lumpers.
      140 species over 20 million years; my feeling is this is one the cusp between Splitters and Lumpers.

      • If organisms can’t produce fertile offspring they are different species…horses and donkeys for instance.
        They can breed but mules are infertile as are ligers and tions.
        It is sometimes not clear cut. If a species has a wide range those from either end of the range may not be able to produce viable offspring.
        The horse-donkey-zebra split occurred around 4.5 million years ago, not much different to the human-chimp split.

  3. “Environmental changes would have produced a lot more fragmented, mosaic-type ecosystems, where populations of horses with similar demands and adaptations could have evolved isolated from one another, resulting in different species but with a similar appearance”, points Manuel Hernández Fernández at the Complutense Univerity in Madrid.
    This expert must be right – because of the great variety of wolf-like species in the vast territories of siberia.
    Or brown bears, grizzlies and polarbears competing altogether undifferentiated in the same habitats for Fish, seals, berries, ponds in forests, tundra and ice fields.
    That study sure makes any ranger laugh.

    • It will — eventually. When the sun quadruples in size and solar wind blasts all the atmosphere from the earth there will be mass extinction. I predict!

  4. Well could he ride, and often men would say, “That horse his mettle from his rider takes: Proud of subjection, noble by the sway, What rounds, what bounds, what course, what stop he makes!” And controversy hence a question takes, Whether the horse by him became his deed, Or he his manage by the well-doing steed.

  5. They didn’t even get the classical theory of the evolution of the horse correct. The appearance of tall grasses caused the original cat sized horse with five toes to first rise up on three toes and lengthen his limbs and eventually to rise up on one toe which present day horses walk on. In the fossil record, the small three toed H has two “splint” vestiges of lost toes, one on the side of the first and third. The modern horse has the vestigial toes as splints of bone on either side of his long middle toe (check out a horse skeleton) . They all have this. Finding variety does not replace the most important aspect of horse evolution. The grasslands of all the continents look pretty much the same – I’ve seen three of them.

    • The lost toes are visible as the horse’s chestnuts on its inner legs.
      Dog, cats and other carnivores have comparable vestigial features, called wrist pads. In some species these structures have been coopted for other uses, and in some individuals still grow dewclaws.

      • Gloat: Yes you are correct. The evolution of the horse is one of the best known because of an abundance of fossils tracing development over 10s of millions of years. They were obviously very successful and had large populations. The teeth, too, developed to better eat and resist wear in chewing their new grass diet. My point was that post modern scientists take something like variety in the species and blow it up into a large discovery and insinuate that former theories are supplanted by their new stuff. It is disgraceful and disingenuous to not properly recount what is well known by paleontologists/geologists.

      • Just another example of scientists behaving badly. Or like humans.
        People who imagine scientists as in some way pure have never studied the history of science or known very many of them.
        Sir Isaac Newton was one of the nastiest, but maybe not as bad as the odious Sir Richard Owen, the anatomist who in 1842 described the taxon Dinosauria, “a distinct tribe or sub-order of Saurian Reptiles”, since 1888 classified as a superorder, with two well-supported orders.

      • Gary:Wiki is generally safe to quote on subjects like this until horsiness becomes alarmist in some way.
        She did add “climate change’ , that would have set alarm bells ringing right there. I am sure those two words are “Tagged” at WIKI.

  6. Hmmm… am I reading right that they are claiming that climate change INCREASES diversity of species? And there I thought they have been shouting from the rooftops about climate change being bad for biodiversity. Oh, that’s right. I forgot, climate change causes all opposites to both be true. My bad. /sarc

  7. Together, climate change and evolution are more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in tiny, tiny increments.

  8. … when changes in sea level allowed their migration from North America into Eurasia and Africa …

    And then the newly arrived humans killed off the American horses about 13000 years ago. The horses we now have were introduced by Europeans. link, link

  9. Many other mammalian groups underwent similar adaptive radiations into new niches at the same time, including our ancestral apes and other primates, but also notably the antelopes.

  10. Do we know what we don’t know? This is reminiscent of human evolution which is intensively studied and for which every new specimen requires the whole belief structure to be re-cast. I exaggerate but not much.

    • You exaggerate quite a bit.
      The major points have been well-established for decades. We descend from australopithecines, upright walking eastern and southern African Pliocene apes with skulls similar to chimps’. Early in the Pleistocene our Homo habilis ancestors evolved bigger brains, which then grew incrementally larger, as too did their bodies, as in H. erectus-grade specimens. Stone tool use and control of fire developed at this stage. Dentition also became more human as faces receded. Chins are a fairly recent development, a trait of anatomically modern humans, H. sapiens sapiens.
      But details have been added often since this general sequence was recognized.

  11. “You know horses are smarter than people. You never heard of a horse going broke betting on people.” ~ Will Rogers

  12. Here’s a paper that gives tacit agreement to the notion that “climate changes”, and that man’s actions have nothing to do with it. (I wonder on which side of the ledger Oreskes or Cook would have placed it.)
    Of course this is counter to the political meme that the phrase “Climate Change” refers only to a catastrophic result of human’s generation of CO2. They must not have gotten the memo.

    • Warmunistas however will stoop to recognizing past real climate change if it can be spun to further their false narrative.
      Without human help, earth’s climate has been everything from covered by oceans of molten rock to covered by oceans of frozen water, and all in between.
      Humans have had very little global effect on climate, despite cutting down forests and burning buried hydrocarbons. The life forms which have had the greatest impact on climate and atmosphere are the humble cyanobacteria, the first photosynthesyzing organisms.

  13. A Husky and a Cocker Spaniel are different species.
    A Bulldog and a Terrier are different species.
    A little person and a normal size person are a different species.
    Do they have proof that these different species that are now extinct couldn’t mate with their fellow horses. A horse is a horse of course, unless it goes extinct then it was a different species, like the cocker spaniel is a different species from the foxhound.
    One makes headlines and a name for themselves which in turn brings in the GRANT money when one discover a ‘new’ species. You don’t make a big name for yourself or make the headlines if you find an extinct breed. Would an extinct new species of dog in France be a more impressive find than an extinct breed of dog in France? I call it the French Shepherd. For me, different species means they are unable to breed, not because they look different. Africans and Europeans look different, so are they different species? If they weren’t human you can bet your life savings 97.43672% of scientists would call them different species, it’s how you get in the headlines, make a name for yourself and get that all important grant money.

    • There are different breeds of dogs just as there are different breeds of humans. We are still all the same species, Homo Sapiens (Genus – Homo, Species – Sapiens) . A breed simply shares a certain set of genetic traits but it does not define a species.

    • Dogs are actually just a (probably self-)domesticated variety of wolf. And wolves are a larger, social variety of coyote. Whether they qualify as separate species or subspecies is debatable, but all are inter-fertile. The supposed “red wolf”, upon which the US FWS has squandered so much wealth, is a coyote with some wolf ancestry.
      Dogs are basically a case of arrested wolf development.

      • Yea, this site got into a discussion of the “red wolf” dispute last year, and got into the nature of what a species is, and particularly how it relates to the Endangered Species Act.
        All the varieties of humans are currently one species, and DNA reveals that various archaic Homo sapiens like Neanderthals were conspecific, as non-Africans have some Neanderthal ancestry. What would have been interesting would have been the survival of ancestral or cousin genus’ like Homo erectus or Australopithecus robustus, which were not conspecific. There was overlap in time between Homo species and A robustus, so there was no good reason why they could not have survived to the present.
        Arguably, wolves, dogs, and coyotes are incipient species, as there is no reproductive isolation yet.

    • Tom,
      IMO the reason why the late survivals of H. erectus-grade humans and even Neanderthal/Denisovans didn’t make it is because they couldn’t compete with moderns. In the case of Neanderthals and Denisovans, at least some of their genes survived.

    • Lots of evolutionary history has a climate angle, to include humans, so I for one would welcome more such posts.

  14. CommieBob, perhaps the early humans decided they preferred eating horse to their previous cockroach stew.And who can possibly hold that against them.
    We had a BBC favorite green lunatic advocating people in the U.K. scrape up flattened roadkill squirrels and eat that instead of beef steak. That tells you much about the BBC that it gave him airtime.

    • I think roadkill eating was an American nut job idea some years ago. The idea may have arisen from a more practical situation where large animals, like deer were killed on the road. They were often given to nearby native people or poor rurals. Rurals are suspected of hitting deer with their trucks on purpose from time to time. I played word games a lot with my children and came up with “squiddle” for a roadkilled squirrel – there are many in the summer where I live. I thought it had a somewhat Scottish sound to it. So far it hasn’t made it into the Oxford dictionary.

      • Suspected, hell. I can take you to parts of New England where a common mod for a pickup is to take off its front bumper and tie on a 6×6.

    • Road killed elk used to be given to Oregon prisons.
      In northern ID, locals carefully carve off the infected parts, but save the rest of an elk carcass.

    • Was that George Monbiot? Writes for the Guardian. Favours re-introducing wolves into Britain. Very big on CAGW too. Claims to eat roadkill, but so far only the non-human ones. That’s probably next. Coming to your local supermarket……

    • Talking of road kill, in Queensland, Australia, drivers deliberately aim for cane toads, flattened by the thousand. If frogs are good enough for the French, then the rest of us can eat toad (Cake). Do not eat the toad, they excrete poison from glands on their upper skin. Crows have learned how to get around this by picking them up, carrying them up and dropping them until dead. Then they flick them over, if not already on their backs, on to their back and peck at the soft under belly!

  15. Jared,
    As with other speciose genera, horse taxonomy has its lumpers and splitters. There is a tendency for paleontologists to assign their discoveries to new species.

  16. “evolutionary success of horses to several novel adaptations in response to the spread of grasslands around 18 million years ago.”
    And what caused the grasslands to spread? Climate change.
    That climate changes is well understood.
    That climate changes will result in habitat changes is well understood.
    That animals adapt to both changing climate and changing habitat is well understood.
    Why is any of this controversial?

  17. Modern horses are largely a result of domestication and selective breeding by man. Their ancestors, like the ancestors of all other species on the planet, are the product of adaptation to a changing environment, where climate is just one of the things that change over time. Cross breeding and species isolation as land masses connect and disconnect is another.

  18. “climate change, is there anything it can’t do?”
    Like tell us which horse will win the Kentucky Derby, or something else actually useful.

  19. Co2isnotevil sets off an interesting train of thought with the idea that adapting to be useful to man in some ways has acted as an evolutionary advantageous trait to some animals. I find myself slightly disappointed our ancestors didn’t come up with a useful task to keep saber-tooths going. But then like the modern cat they would probably have spent their time planning how to kill us – which modern cats do very efficiently of course by infecting us with all sorts of nasty diseases.

    • My guess is the allegiance with dogs (wolves) went a long way to ensuring the demise of saber-toothed cats – that and the crash of the big herbivores like mammoths (which our species probably also helped along) – the long-fanged cats weren’t really adapted for anything other than very large prey.

  20. Environmental conditions are a forcing factor in evolution? They actually did a study to determine this? Boy, what an innovative idea. SCIENCE magazine is really ahead of the times.
    Did they run out of coke for their test chimps to sniff?

  21. Same is said for early primates. Grassland grew in favour of trees forcing primates to walk up right, as in the case of “Lucy”.

    • And, as noted, for a lot of other groups, to include especially antelopes, which evolved in adaptation to the spreading savannahs.
      Antelope BTW aren’t a formally classified subfamily or tribe of Family Bovidae, but are defined more by what they aren’t than what they are. They aren’t cattle or caprids, for instance. The American pronghorn “antelope” is not a bovid.

  22. More great topics to write grants to study and publish papers on:
    Humans Evolved In A Nitrogen-Based Atmosphere
    Cells Divided To Produce New Life Forms
    The Sky Developed A Blue Color
    Life On Earth Advanced Due To Aerobic Respiration
    Gravity Caused Rain To Fall Downward

  23. The evolution of the horse and the horse’s type of foot – walking on a single finger / toe, also evolved independently in South America during that continent’s isolation.

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