Horse News

Another Study Verifies Wild Horses in North America Eons Ago

Information obtained from the Science Daily

Science Blows BLM “Feral Horse” Theory out of the Water

Prehistoric North American Horse (Artist's Rendition)

The genetic history of six large herbivores — the woolly rhinoceros, woolly mammoth, wild horse, reindeer, bison, and musk ox — has shown that both climate change and humans were responsible for the extinction or near extinction of large mammal populations within the last 10,000 years. The study, which is the first to use genetic, archeological, and climatic data together to infer the population history of large-bodied Ice Age mammals, will be published in the journal Nature.

The study was led by Professor Eske Willerslev of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen and includes an international team of paleontologists, geologists, geneticists and climate modelers including Beth Shapiro, the Shaffer Associate Professor of Biology at Penn State University. The study’s findings are expected to shed light on the possible fates of living species of mammals as our planet continues its current warming cycle. The paper will be posted on the journal’s Advance Online Publication website on 2 November 2011 at 2:00 p.m. U.S. Eastern time.

“Our findings put a final end to the single-cause theories of these extinctions,” said Willerslev. “Our data suggest care should be taken in making generalizations regarding past and present species extinctions; the relative impacts of climate change and human encroachment on species extinctions really depends on which species we’re looking at.”

Shapiro explained that all six of the species the team studied flourished during the Pleistocene Epoch — the period of geological time that lasted from about 2 million to 12,000 years ago. “During this time, there were lots of climatic ups and downs — oscillations between long, warm intervals called interglacial periods, during which the climate was similar to what we have today, followed by long, cold intervals called glacial periods, or ice ages,” Shapiro said. “Although these cold-adapted animals certainly fared better during the colder, glacial periods, they still managed to find places where the climate was just right — refugia — so that they could survive during the warmer, interglacial periods. Then, after the peak of the last ice age around 20,000 years ago, their luck started to run out. The question is, what changed? Why were these mammals no longer able to find safe refugia where they could survive in a warm climate?”

To answer these questions, the team collected many different types of data to test hypotheses about how, when, and why the woolly rhinoceros, woolly mammoth, and wild horse all went extinct after the last ice age, and why the reindeer, bison, and musk ox were able to survive — albeit in much more restricted ranges than they could inhabit during the ice ages. “One source of information we used was DNA from the animals themselves,” Shapiro explained. “With genetic data, it’s possible to estimate when and how much populations were able to grow and shrink as the climate changed and their habitat started to disappear.” The team also collected climatic data — temperature and precipitation patterns — from both glacial and interglacial periods, as well as archeological data, which they used to study the extent to which early humans may have influenced the survival of these six mammal species. “For example, in locations where animal bones had been cooked or converted into spears, we know that humans lived there and were using them as a resource,” Shapiro said. “Even where we don’t find evidence that humans were using the animals, if humans and the animals lived in the same place and at the same time, humans could have had some influence on whether the animals survived or not.”

In the case of the now-extinct woolly rhinoceros, the scientists found that, in Europe, the ranges of humans and woolly rhinoceros never overlapped. “These data suggest that climate change, and not humans, was the main reason why this particular species went extinct in present-day Europe,” Shapiro said. “Still, we expect humans might have played a role in other regions of the world where they did overlap with woolly rhinos, and so further studies will be necessary to test this hypothesis.” Much clearer was the evidence that humans did influence, and not always negatively, the population sizes of the five other species — the woolly mammoth, wild horse, reindeer, bison, and musk ox.

Shapiro explained that population fluctuations for all six species continued until the end of the last ice age — around 14,000 years ago — when many of the species simply disappeared. “The take-home message is that during the most recent warming event, when the last ice age faded into the warm interval we have today, something kept these animals from doing what they had always done, from finding alternative refugia — less-than-ideal, but good-enough chunks of land on which to keep their populations at a critical mass,” Shapiro said. “That ‘something’ was probably us — humans.” During the period when these animals were declining, the human population was beginning its boom, and was spreading out across not only the large-bodied mammals’ cold-climate habitats, but also across their warm-climate refuges, changing the landscape with agriculture and other activities. Many large-bodied, cold-adapted mammals, including the horse — which is considered extinct in the wild and now survives only as a domesticated animal — suddenly had no alternative living spaces, and, as such, no means to maintain their populations.

“The results of our study suggest that although past warm periods caused these animal species to go through periodic bottlenecks — evolutionary events during which the size of a population diminishes substantially and stays small for a long time — they always seemed to bounce back, and to return to their previous habitats as soon as the Earth became cooler again. Then, during the most-recent warming cycle, that trend changed,” Shapiro said.

As the climate became warmer after the last ice age, the woolly rhinoceros, woolly mammoth, and wild horse became extinct, and the reindeer, bison, and musk ox may have just been fortunate in avoiding extinction, according to Shapiro. “We couldn’t pinpoint what patterns characterize extinct species, despite the large and varying amount of data analyzed,” said Eline Lorenzen, from the University of Copenhagen and the first author of the study. “This suggests that it will be challenging for experts to predict how existing mammals will respond to future global climate change — to predict which species will go extinct and which will survive.”

Reindeer managed to find safe habitat in high arctic regions and, today, have few predators or competitors for limited resources. Bison are extinct in Asia, where their populations were extensive during the ice ages, and today they are found only in North America, although a related species survives in small numbers in Europe. Cold-adapted muskoxen now live only in the arctic regions of North America and Greenland, with small introduced populations in Norway, Siberia, and Sweden. Interestingly, if humans had any impact on musk-ox populations, it may have been to help sustain them. Musk-ox populations first became established in Greenland around 5,000 years ago, after which they expanded rapidly, despite having been a major resource for the Paleo-Eskimo population. Today, the animal species survives in large numbers.

Shapiro also said that the findings could help to predict the fate of populations threatened by the climate change and habitat alteration that is happening today. “Our results provide direct evidence that something changed between the most-recent glacial cycle, when many of these species went extinct, and previous glacial cycles, through which they all managed to survive. Although it is clear that climate change drives the dynamics of these species, we, as humans, have to take some of the blame for what happened during this most-recent cycle. It seems that our ancestors were able to change the landscape so dramatically that these animals were effectively cut off from what they needed to survive, even when the human population was small,” Shapiro said. “There are many more humans today, and we have changed and are continuing to change the planet in even more important ways.”

In addition to Shapiro, Willerslev and Lorenzen, many other scientists contributed to this study. In the United States, contributing authors are from institutions in Utah, California, Texas, Missouri, Maryland, Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Kansas. The study’s international contributors are from institutions in Denmark, Australia, Sweden, Spain, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Russia, China, and Canada.

The research was funded, in part, by the Leverhulme Trust, the Awards Fund, the Danish National Research Foundation, the Lundbeck Foundation, the Danish Council for Independent Research, and the U.S. National Science Foundation.

19 replies »

  1. “Many large-bodied, cold-adapted mammals, including the horse — which is considered extinct in the wild and now survives only as a domesticated animal — suddenly had no alternative living spaces, and, as such, no means to maintain their populations”
    Can someone explain how this statement is a positive for us? I read it as being negative?


    • Come to think of it, it does sound “not” good for us. But when I read this, I thought…wait a minute, wild equines are not extinct; maybe displaced and not in the numbers 10k plus years ago, BUT NOT extinct. The Przewalski is still around.

      And where did the domestic horse come from? Doesn’t that mean, there had to BE wild equines somewhere to develop the domestic strains/breeds we have now? I still believe there were pockets of wild equines that survived in North America; probably in the Pacific Northwest (Canada, Alaska, etc).

      The woolly mammoth is definitely gone; the bison and wild horse…not yet.

      Maybe someone can explain the scientists’ findings and logic to me. Because I just don’t get their premise. Sounds like a better use of that research money would have to give it to Laura Leigh for truck and her lawsuit.


      • Dr. Kirkpatrick and Craig Downer have been saying for years that the Horse evolved right here in North American, the prehistoric horse that then moved south and west across the Bering Land Bridge and a cataclysmic disaster killed off all large animals in North American and almost did away with man. This does dispell the feral horse theory in as much if the current wild horses are of Spanish decent, as Cloud’s herd is, they are a bonified reintroduction of a NATIVE species…not feral.

        There have also been some studies that indicate that “pockets” of wild horses survived in what is now Alaska and northern Canada.

        Point being that our wild horses, whose DNA is identical to that of the fossils found, is not feral but proven native…period.

        R.T. Fitch Author – “Straight from the Horse’s Heart” President of the Wild Horse Freedom Federation The Force of the Horse, LLC 1-800-974-FOTH



  2. correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that Przewalski went extinct in the wild and was RE-INTRODUCED to the wild (see Wikipedia I don’t know how pure the re-introduced bloodline is from original wild Przewalski’s (programs re-introducing grey wolves are documentably pureblood, even if bred in captivity). While Cloud and his crew (and the Kigers) can be DNA traced back to domesticated Spanish breeds, I will assume from the information available that Cloud is not DNA identical to Przewalski. Which brings a question to mind – if Cloud et al is DNA identical to pre-Columbian fossils found here in America, would that lend believe to a.) Przewalski is simply a different subspecies of equus that developed in Asia (and the last in recent human memory to truly run wild), similar to how burros are a sub-species of equus or b.) the equus that went extinct in America evolved (whether alone or with the help of native american breeding programs – see Yuri Kuchinsky’s theory on the similarities of Native American horsemanship vs. Mongolian horsemanship) into the Equus species we see today in wild horse herds around the planet (the ones that we THOUGHT were simply feral decendants). Perhaps the American equus didn’t look as much like Przewalski as we think.


    • Kerry, I agree. They may look different… but DNA will be different also of animals from different continents and different centuries.


      • The Przewalski horse is a different species than Equus Caballus which is the horse that eventually evolved here in North America and is the ancestor of the modern horse. I think the Przewalski horse is considered purely wild. The burro is another species Equus Africanus. What is hard to get our minds around is that the evolution took place throughout millions of years, and man has not existed for even one million years if you accept evolutionary theory. During these years the surface of the earth changes dramatically due to plate techtonics that pushed continents together and then forced them apart. Land bridges existed to join continents during some periods in our history, but not in others. It is extremely hard to grasp just how slowly these changes occured in the age of the 30 second sound bite.


  3. Ice Age horse added to list of Snowmass discoveries | Real Aspen …

    I was under the inpression that this is one of the most important finds to date, and the horse bone is said to be one of the oldest finds.


  4. Sorry about that- did not load as a link. but if you type in~ Ice age horse added to list of Snowmass dig~ you should get it. It says they have discovered a horse bone in the deepest and oldest part of the dig. Have had trouble ever since century link and msn split


  5. Two Youtube clips of a documentary you will want to see “El Caballo – The Wild Horses of North America”. The origin of our equines is discussed in additition to other wild horse information. Well worth it!
    (I found the DVD for $4 on


  6. Question: How does this effect the N.A.S Report? I would hope these people will pick apart their impending report releasing the results as bogus. The government has the proof right here, but I get the impression especially this agency will still side with the Cattle and welfare rancher’s crying like babies. Now we all know and the proof has been here right along and has been peer reviewed. What happens now? I’m guessing that this report will strongly discredit those on the N.A.S and those that supported them. R. T. can you shed some light on this?


  7. In view of Mountain States v. Hodel “In structure and purpose, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act is nothing more than a land-use regulation enacted by Congress to ensure the survival of a particular species of wildlife. It is not unique in its impact on private resource owners. At the outset, it is important to note that wild horses and burros are no less “wild” animals than are the grizzly bears that roam our national parks and forests. Indeed, in the definitional section of the Act, Congress has explicitly declared “all unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands” to be “wild horses and burros.” 16 U.S.C. Sec. 1332(b) (1982) (emphasis added).4″Neither the States nor the Federal Government . . . has title to these creatures until they are reduced to possession by skillful capture.”) (citations omitted); Kleppe, 426 U.S. at 535-38. (How skillful are captures that traumatize, cripple and kill wild animals?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Lately I have felt a stirring from these scientists that their information needs to be heeded. This and other recent information is still needed to counteract the base attitude that we are trying to save animals that do not belong. They DO belong here and no where else.


  9. While I very much appreciate this erudite analysis of the paleontological history of these large mammal species in North America, I was take back by Shapiro’s claim that the horses has disappeared from the wild, or that it is certain that the horse disappeared right after the Ice Age from North America ca. 12,000 years ago. Bothy are not correct and I amply demonstrate in Chapter I of my book The Wild Horse Conspiracy, which can be obtained at a very reasonable price as an eBook or a still reasonable price as a printed book either from me directly or at Wish Shapiro and team would read this carefully! I present much evidence researched over many years.


  10. Current researchers are attempting to interpret their results based on hypotheses that have undergone change in recent years. For example, The Peopling of America, reshaped our understanding of WHEN man arrived in the Americas and that reshapes our understanding of when the human population exploded to colonize coastlines, then later interiors of every continent in the world. Humans have been in South America for at least 56,000 years, not the 11,500 or 12,000 years once thought under the “Clovis First” hypothesis.
    Recent molecular genetic studies have revealed that the horses in modern Iberia are recently imported “foreign” transplants, unrelated to bronze and iron age horses of Spain (Jaime Lira). This means that a light horse population was sourced to repopulate Spain in historic times, eliminating the idea that Spain served as a resivior for the genetic diversity that we find in American horses, both wild and domestic.
    Where did the modern horses of Spain originate? If you want to know, read my article on the origin of our native American horses. If you love wild horses and if you’ve always wondered why horses have left a gap in the fossil record in the Americas, you will want to read this.


  11. as we can all see mustangs are very adept at survival, they survive in the worst of places and without fences will migrate..the structure of a band is somewhat unique to its survival..altho bigger today than they were in those days-the larger animals are the ones that disappeared into extinction with a loss of food..I hardly believe humans were numerous enough or posessed of weapons sophisticated enough to kill off any species..the weakest of all the species were humans-look at how few human remains were found in N. America compared to S. America



    “The idea that horses could have survived into more recent times in areas south of Alaska and the Yukon was suggested 40 years ago by archaeologist Paul S. Martin. He said that there was no reason why horses could not have survived in isolated areas of North America as late as 2000 B.C. (Paul S. Martin, “The Discovery of America,” Science 179, 1973). But more recent discoveries are revealing that horses may have been present in North America much longer, even right up to the time when Europeans “reintroduced” horses to the Americas.”


  13. In spite of its discrepancies, this article also serves to point out how much in common North America, Europe and Asia have as far as shared species of fauna and flora, genera, families, etc. It is so arbitrary to impose purist “native” criteria on animals. But in the case of the horse and its genus and its family, it is definitely one of very most indigenous, native, call it what you will, and has proven long-standing duration that is for all practical purposes continuous since the Mesozoic, or age of the dinosaurs! That’ impressive!


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