MadSci Network: Zoology

Re: Are horses native to North America, and if not, where did they come from?

Date: Mon Jun 5 14:21:39 2000
Posted By: Rich Grenyer, Grad student, Evolutionary and Conservation Biology, Imperial College od Science, Technology and Medicine
Area of science: Zoology
ID: 959005727.Zo

Hi Susan... Thanks for asking about horses - they're a favourite animal of 
mine. We know lots about where horses came from because there are lots of 
fossil horses that show us how, and where, they evolved. Yes, the first 
horse we know of was from North America, so you could say they are native to 
North America. This first horse was called Hyracotherium, and was about the 
size of a terrier dog. It lived all over North America about 50 million 
years ago, and ate leaves from low growing bushes.

Lots of different sorts of horses evolved since then, and they spread from 
North America into Europe, Asia and Africa. They became bigger, and better 
at running away from predators . They also became much better at eating 
grass, rather than the leaves of bushes and trees. Zebras, which are only 
found in Africa, are close cousins of the domestic horse we use for riding. 

Eventually, all the horses became very good at running over prairies and 
plains, but not very good at living anywhere else. And then , for why we 
don't know exactly, about 15,000 years ago all the horses in North and South 
America died out. It might have been that they were driven extinct by the 
Ice Age cold. it's also possible that the humans living in America at the 
time hunted them all. The horses you have in America today were brought over 
from Europe by settlers in the 1400s.

So there's your answer! Yes, horses were native to North America, but the 
ones you have around you today are not.

Here's a picture of the first horse, Hyracotherium.

And this website is really good for information on all sorts of mammals: 
here's what it says about horses and here you can look for all 
sorts of other 


The Rise of the Mammals. M. J. Benton. 1991. Quarto Publishing. London
The Mammalian Radiations. J. F. Eisenberg. 1981. Athlone Press. London

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