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Teeth of ancient equines shaped by climate, diet

Representative teeth of each group: (A) Hipparionini, (B) Equini, (C) “Merychippini,” and (D) “Anchitheriini.” Each has a distinct enamel pattern; the patterns decrease in complexity from A to D.

Representative teeth of each group in the study: (A) Hipparionini, (B) Equini, (C) “Merychippini,” and (D) “Anchitheriini.” Each has a distinct enamel pattern; the patterns decrease in complexity from A to D.

Scientists in Oregon have found that the differences in tooth enamel between four ancient horse groups were a result of environmental changes.

University of Oregon researchers Nicholas A. Famoso and Edward Byrd Davis compared the tooth enamel of four horse groups living 16 million years ago, compared to the lone surviving group of modern horses.

In a study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, the two paleontologists suggest the patterns of enamel on the chewing surfaces evolved as horses turned to eating gritty materials in a cooling and drying climate.

Using a numerical method – the occlusal enamel index – that measures the complexity of enamel patterns, Famoso and Davis compared the molars and pre-molars from four groups of horses that had lived between the middle Miocene and today. Each group was distinct in the patterns of enamel on chewing (occlusal) surfaces. The patterns, the researchers say, influence the ability of a horse to process food during chewing.

Teeth in the skull of a horse (genus Neohipparion) found near Valentine, Nebraska. The skull dates to 13 million to 16 million years ago.

Teeth in the skull of a horse (genus Neohipparion) found near Valentine, Nebraska. The skull dates to 13 million to 16 million years ago. Photo: Nicholas Famoso

Famoso, a doctoral student in the UO Department of Geological Sciences, and Davis, his adviser in the department and a scientist with the UO Museum of Natural and Cultural History, also used statistical methods to test whether horse teeth increase in complexity in response to an increase in gritty materials in their diet, leading to more tooth abrasion over time.

Results suggest that the shape of the enamel patterns was influenced by a combination of climate change and diet, as well as evolutionary relationships and tooth position.

“The patterns of enamel on the chewing surfaces of middle Miocene to modern horses increases as we would expect in response to increased grit in the diet,” Famoso said.

“Modern horses have much lower enamel complexity than their North American ancestors, likely because modern horses are bred from Old World stock where they were under different selective pressures, and are not native to North America.”

 

Examples of True Area and Occlusal Enamel Length (OEL) taken on a digital image of Pseudhipparion. True Area is a different measurement than length by width.

Examples of True Area and Occlusal Enamel Length (OEL) taken on a digital image of Pseudhipparion. True Area is a different measurement than length by width.

Reporting: Jim Barlow

Occlusal Enamel Complexity in Middle Miocene to Holocene Equids (Equidae: Perissodactyla) of North America. Nicholas A. Famoso, Edward Byrd Davis. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0090184. Full report

 

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