Old Caribbean horse tooth traced back to our wild ponies

August 2, 2022
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Chincoteague Ponies

By Linda Cicoira

    The origin of the Eastern Shore’s beloved wild Chincoteague ponies has been debated for centuries. Now, according to an article published this week in Popular Science Magazine, the genetic analysis of a 16th-century horse tooth from the Caribbean offers some support for the shipwreck tale.

     Researchers found that the tooth fragment, discovered in present-day Haiti, belonged to a horse of southern European origin. The specimen is most closely related to the Chincoteague pony breed. 

      “This helps us to have a better idea of what the origins of these early colonial horses are,” Nicolas Delsol, a zoo archaeologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, and coauthor of the findings, told the magazine. “There is some documentary evidence from the historical literature stating that horses were boarded in southern Spain, where most of the first expeditions came from, but it’s always interesting to see how accurate these early colonial chronicles are.”

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       Michelle Delco, an equine orthopedic surgeon and assistant research professor at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine who wasn’t involved with the research, said the findings “fill in a major gap.”

     The horse family, known as equids, evolved in North America about 50 million years ago and spread to Eurasia around 2.5 million years ago. They reportedly disappeared from the Western Hemisphere, along with many other large animals about 10,000 years ago. In the late 15th century, domesticated horses were brought to the Americas during the European invasion, the article states. They first were introduced in the Caribbean islands and then diffused throughout the continent along European colonization.

    The tooth was excavated in 1980 from the 16th-century town Puerto Real on Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The specimen dates to a period when occupation was sparse after Spanish authorities ordered the island’s northern ports abandoned in the 1570s in response to persistent pirate raids and smuggling. 

     At first the fragment was misidentified as a cow’s tooth. Then Delsol examined its DNA and realized it was the molar of an adult horse. By fully reconstructing the mitochondrial genome of this early Caribbean horse, they were able to conclude that it hailed from the Iberian Peninsula, which is occupied by Spain and Portugal. Its closest relatives turned out to be the feral ponies of Chincoteague and Assateague.

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    This doesn’t necessarily mean that the ponies’ ancestors fled from a Spanish shipwreck, Delsol emphasizes, but it “gives more historical accuracy to this story. This scientific manuscript suggests the legendary origin story of the Chincoteague pony is true,” Delsol said.     

     The team acknowledged in the article that the findings focus on a single horse and “only gives us the story of the maternal lineage … To be more thorough, we would include an analysis of the paternal lineage.” 

     Although DNA degrades more quickly in tropical climates, he’s successfully extracted snippets of nuclear DNA from similarly-aged cattle specimens and suspects it will be possible to do the same with the Puerto Real horse. Delsol and his team also plan to expand their analysis to the remains of other horses from Puerto Real.

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