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Science And Nature

Beloved Chincoteague ponies’ mythical origins could be real

Published July 27, 2022

9 min read

On Virginias Chincoteague Island, wild ponies reign supreme. These compact, colorful horses with shaggy manes reside in small herds of a stallion and many mares, combing the beaches and snacking on marsh grasses. Popular tourist draws, these ponies were made famous by Marguerite Henrys 1947 novel Misty of Chincoteague. Each July, thousands of people stop by at watch a huge selection of the horses swim over the channel from nearby Assateague Island, and the equines can be purchased at auction to help keep the population in balance.

Despite their celebrity, the ponies origin is shrouded in mystery. Local lore claims the ponies are descended from horses that swam ashore following a sinking of a Spanish galleon off the Virginia coast sometime around 1750.

But without documentation of the lost ship, many historians believe the ponies are instead the progeny of runaway livestock, and therefore their origins are a lot more recent. (Read: Do we finally know where horses evolved?)

Now, DNA preserved in a fossilized horse tooth found 1,200 miles away in the Caribbean may lend credence to the supposedly mythical shipwreck. In a report published today in the journal PLOS One, researchers posit that the tooth belonged to a cousin of the ponies roving Virginia and Marylands barrier islands.

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

While researching century-old fossils, Del Sol found a 450-year-old shard of horse tooth molar that archaeologists had collected in the 1980s in northern Haiti, at the website of an early on Spanish colony called Puerto Real. The tooth, considered to participate in a cow, had sat forgotten in the universitys museum collections for many years.

It had been a serendipitous find, he said. I was studying cows, but found this incredible little bit of horse data.

From the colonial horses mouth

Founded in 1503, just 10 years after Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean, Puerto Real was a prominent Spanish ranching hub surrounded by fertile pasturelands. Colonists imported Spanish horses from southern Europe to greatly help herd cattle, that have been raised both for his or her hides so when food. Because of this, cattle bones are plentiful in the towns middens, or trash heaps, which are actually a treasure trove of information for archaeologists.

Because horses were prized status symbols at that time, however, these were rarely butchered, making them rare in the fossil record, says Delsol. Of the 127,000 Puerto Real animal specimens housed at the universitys Florida Museum of Natural History, only eight participate in horses.

The lucky horse tooth, he says, was discovered not in a midden, however in the vicinity of where Puerto Reals church once stood.

After freezing and pulverizing an example of the tooth, Delsol and his colleagues processed the powder and sent it off to a lab for sequencing. Although that they had tempered expectationsancient DNA often degrades in muggy, tropical conditions the horses tooth yielded an extraordinary level of genetic information.

The team centered on the horses mitochondrial DNA, a kind of DNA passed on from an animals mother, that is plentiful generally in most cells. Its also a helpful tool for reconstructing an organisms maternal lineage, enabling Delsol and his team to sequence a whole mitochondrial genomethe earliest mitogenome from the domesticated horse in the Western Hemisphere. (Find out about the worlds oldest genome, sequenced from 700,000-year-old horse DNA.)

Armed with the brand new genome, the researchers aimed to slot the Puerto Real horse within the bigger family tree of modern domestic horses. They compared the Puerto Real horses mitogenome with a comprehensive analysis greater than 80 mitochondrial genomes of horse populations all over the world. That revealed the Puerto Real horses closest relative was the Chincoteague pony.

I had never heard about Chincoteague, Delsol says. And I read this interesting anecdote in regards to a Spanish shipwreck.

Reclaiming their homeland

Although native to THE UNITED STATES, the wild horse species that gave rise to domestic horses, Equus ferus,had not been present on the continent for some of days gone by 10,000 years, after disappearing at the close of the last ice age.

However, when European explorers began colonizing the Caribbean in the late 15th century, they unwittingly reintroduced domestic horses. After they reached the mainland, horses quickly spread over the continent where their ancestors had once run wild.

But most horses didnt result in a location as inhospitable as Chincoteague and Assateague. With limited food options, the ponies subsist solely on marsh grasses, a salty diet that forces them to guzzle doubly much water because the average horse, providing them with a perpetually bloated appearance. The briny diet also keeps them generally small in stature. The annual pony swim auction, hosted by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which owns the Chincoteague herd, maintains the amount of ponies on the windswept island at around 150, that is about all of the island can support.

This hostile environment can be why folks are so intrigued how ponies got there. The shipwreck-origin hypothesis, notably help with in Misty of Chincoteague, may now gain ground because the leading theory, Delsol says.

For just one, Chincoteague itself sits at a treacherous stretch of the mid-Atlantic that’s crisscrossed by hazardous shoals, he says. Proof shipwrecks, including several colonial-age vessels, often wash ashore during winter storms.

Emily Jones, an archaeologist at the University of New Mexico who studies the way the arrival of horses impacted western ecosystems, believes the brand new finding illustrates how zooarchaeological remains can complete blanks in the historical record.

The feral population on Chincoteague highlights the theory that the spread of horses isn’t something where we are able to depend on European documents to inform us the annals, says Jones, who was simply not mixed up in new study. (Find out about wild horses and their shrinking population in the American West.)

Delsol believes this tooth fragment comes with an sustained story to inform: It hints that Spanish settlers were sailing further north in to the mid-Atlantic region when their ship sank.

While historical records of the explorations are scant, the info preserved in the colonial tooth can help connect the dots.

Its a lot more than only a horse story, Delsol says.

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