Evolution of the horse - part 2
Eocene and Oligocene: early equids
Eohippus appeared in the Ypresian (early Eocene), about 52 mya (million years ago). It was an animal approximately the size of a fox (250–450 mm in height), with a relatively short head and neck and a springy, arched back. It had 44 low-crowned teeth, in the typical arrangement of an omnivorous, browsing mammal: three incisors, one canine, four premolars, and three molars on each side of the jaw. Its molars were uneven, dull, and bumpy, and used primarily for grinding foliage. The cusps of the molars were slightly connected in low crests. Eohippus browsed on soft foliage and fruit, probably scampering between thickets in the mode of a modern muntjac. It had a small brain, and possessed especially small frontal lobes.
Its limbs were long relative to its body, already showing the beginnings of adaptations for running. However, all of the major leg bones were unfused, leaving the legs flexible and rotatable. Its wrist and hock joints were low to the ground. The forelimbs had developed five toes, of which four were equipped with small proto-hooves; the large fifth "toe-thumb" was off the ground. The hind limbs had small hooves on three out of the five toes, while the vestigial first and fifth toes did not touch the ground. Its feet were padded, much like a dog's, but with the small hooves in place of claws.
For a span of about 20 million years, Eohippus thrived with few significant evolutionary changes. The most significant change was in the teeth, which began to adapt to its changing diet, as these early Equidae shifted from a mixed diet of fruits and foliage to one focused increasingly on browsing foods. During the Eocene, an Eohippus species (most likely Eohippus angustidens) branched out into various new types of Equidae. Thousands of complete, fossilized skeletons of these animals have been found in the Eocene layers of North American strata, mainly in the Wind River basin in Wyoming. Similar fossils have also been discovered in Europe, such as Propalaeotherium (which is not considered ancestral to the modern horse).
Approximately 50 million years ago, in the early-to-middle Eocene, Eohippus smoothly transitioned into Orohippus through a gradual series of changes. Although its name means "mountain horse", Orohippus was not a true horse and did not live in the mountains. It resembled Eohippus in size, but had a slimmer body, an elongated head, slimmer forelimbs, and longer hind legs, all of which are characteristics of a good jumper. Although Orohippus was still pad-footed, the vestigial outer toes of Eohippus were not present in Orohippus; there were four toes on each fore leg, and three on each hind leg.
The most dramatic change between Eohippus and Orohippus was in the teeth: the first of the premolar teeth were dwarfed, the last premolar shifted in shape and function into a molar, and the crests on the teeth became more pronounced. Both of these factors gave the teeth of Orohippus greater grinding ability, suggesting Orohippus ate tougher plant material.
In the mid-Eocene, about 47 million years ago, Epihippus, a genus which continued the evolutionary trend of increasingly efficient grinding teeth, evolved from Orohippus. Epihippus had five grinding, low-crowned cheek teeth with well-formed crests. A late species of Epihippus, sometimes referred to as Duchesnehippus intermedius, had teeth similar to Oligocene equids, although slightly less developed. Whether Duchesnehippus was a subgenus of Epihippus or a distinct genus is disputed. Epihippus was only 2 feet tall.
In the late Eocene and the early stages of the Oligocene epoch (32–24 mya), the climate of North America became drier, and the earliest grasses began to evolve. The forests were yielding to flatlands, home to grasses and various kinds of brush. In a few areas, these plains were covered in sand, creating the type of environment resembling the present-day prairies.
In response to the changing environment, the then-living species of Equidae also began to change. In the late Eocene, they began developing tougher teeth and becoming slightly larger and leggier, allowing for faster running speeds in open areas, and thus for evading predators in nonwooded areas. About 40 mya, Mesohippus ("middle horse") suddenly developed in response to strong new selective pressures to adapt, beginning with the species Mesohippus celer and soon followed by Mesohippus westoni.
In the early Oligocene, Mesohippus was one of the more widespread mammals in North America. It walked on three toes on each of its front and hind feet (the first and fifth toes remained, but were small and not used in walking). The third toe was stronger than the outer ones, and thus more weighted; the fourth front toe was diminished to a vestigial nub. Judging by its longer and slimmer limbs, Mesohippus was an agile animal.
Mesohippus was slightly larger than Epihippus, about 610 mm (24 in) at the shoulder. Its back was less arched, and its face, snout, and neck were somewhat longer. It had significantly larger cerebral hemispheres, and had a small, shallow depression on its skull called a fossa, which in modern horses is quite detailed. The fossa serves as a useful marker for identifying an equine fossil's species. Mesohippus had six grinding "cheek teeth", with a single premolar in front—a trait all descendant Equidae would retain. Mesohippus also had the sharp tooth crests of Epihippus, improving its ability to grind down tough vegetation.
Around 36 million years ago, soon after the development of Mesohippus, Miohippus ("lesser horse") emerged, the earliest species being Miohippus assiniboiensis. As with Mesohippus, the appearance of Miohippus was relatively abrupt, though a few transitional fossils linking the two genera have been found. Mesohippus was once believed to have anagenetically evolved into Miohippus by a gradual series of progressions, but new evidence has shown its evolution was cladogenetic: a Miohippus population split off from the main genus Mesohippus, coexisted with Mesohippus for around four million years, and then over time came to replace Mesohippus.
Miohippus was significantly larger than its predecessors, and its ankle joints had subtly changed. Its facial fossa was larger and deeper, and it also began to show a variable extra crest in its upper cheek teeth, a trait that became a characteristic feature of equine teeth.
~ to be continued ~Read more at wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_of_the_horse
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