From the collections room (Equus)

When I speak to schoolchildren and other members of the public that are not very familiar with paleontology, they often think that fossil = dinosaur (if they’re on top of things, they may also know about mammoths, sabertooth cats, and sharks). It comes as a surprise to them to discover that fossils of other animals (and plants) are much more common. Given that they never really think about fossil mammals, they’re shocked to learn that many groups found on other continents originated in or have a rich fossil record in North America, including camels, tapirs, rhinoceroses, and horses. Horses are particularly unexpected for them, since they usually know from their history classes that horses were brought to North America by European explorers.

Virginia’s record of terrestrial mammals in general is very spotty. There are a handful of specimens from a single Eocene site, and Miocene specimens from Carmel Church and a few other places (that include a few horses). After the Miocene, the other records of Virginia horses are all from Pleistocene and Holocene deposits, from a dozen or so localities.

One of the more prolific Pleistocene sites in Virginia is Saltville, in Smyth County. This is a lake deposit that has produced a large number of fossil vertebrates over the years; probably the first published report of any vertebrate fossil from Virginia was a mammoth or mastodont from Saltville, by Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia in 1787. Numerous excavations have been conducted there in the years since, including several VMNH excavations in the late 1980s – early 1990s.

A fair number of horse remains have been collected at Saltville, mostly consisting of teeth. An upper left 2nd premolar is shown at the top, and below are two upper right premolars or molars:

These teeth are all from the genus Equus, which includes all the modern horses, donkeys, and zebras. The taxonomy of Equus is a bit of a mess, with many rather poorly defined species and with fairly subtle differences between them (not entirely surprising; all the extant Equus species can interbreed to produce infertile offspring). As a result I’m not sure which species is represented by VMNH’s Saltville specimens.

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2 Responses to From the collections room (Equus)

  1. Doug says:

    Horses are a mess wherever you go. It seems like you need a full set of teeth to be able to discern the species.

    you said mostly teeth, so what other remains have you recovered? A paleontologist i know (who studies fossil horses) said a few years back he was doing research to see if horses could be identified by the shape of their toe bones ( i think. it was a casual conversation in 2007). Whether that’s true or not, the size and shape of camel medapodials seems to follow that pattern.

  2. Alton Dooley says:

    IIRC, there are some partial metatarsals and/or metacarpals in addition to the teeth. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are additional post cranial bits that have gone unidentified.

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