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Change in size of earliest horses driven by climate change, says study

The hotter is gets, the smaller the animal?

A study in Science on February 24, 2012, suggests that temperature was the most likely factor driving decreases in the body size of the earliest horse, during a global warming event 56 million years ago.

When the earliest known horse, Sifrhippus sandae, first appeared in the forests of North America more than 50 million years ago, it weighed around 12 pounds – and it was destined to get much smaller over the ensuing millennia.

This artist reconstruction compares Sifrhippus sandrae, right, with a modern Morgan horse that stands about 5 feet tall at the shoulder and weighs about 1,000 pounds. Sifrhippus, the earliest known horse, was the size of a small house cat (about 8.5 pounds) at the beginning of the Eocene about 56 million years ago. University of Florida illustration by Danielle Byerl

Sifrhippus lived during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a 175,000-year interval of time some 56 million years ago in which average global temperatures rose by about 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists say the warming was caused by the release of vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and oceans.

About a third of mammal species responded with a significant reduction in size during the PETM, some by as much as one-half.

Sifrhippus shrank by about 30 percent, to the size of a small house cat–about 8.5 pounds–in the PETM’s first 130,000 years, then rebounded to about 15 pounds in the final 45,000 years of the PETM.

Scientists have assumed that rising temperatures or high concentrations of carbon dioxide primarily caused the “dwarfing” phenomenon in mammals during this period.

The research, led by Ross Secord of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Jonathan Bloch of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, offers evidence of the cause-and-effect relationship between temperature and body size.

The researchers used measurements and geochemical composition of fossil mammal teeth, recovered Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin, to document a progressive decrease in Sifrhippus’ body size that correlates very closely to temperature change over a 130,000-year span. Bloch said:

For the first time, going back into deep time – tens of millions of years – we were able to show that indeed temperature was causing essentially a one-to-one shift in body size in this lineage of horse.

Because it’s over a long enough time, you can argue very strongly that what you’re looking at is natural selection and evolution that it’s actually corresponding to the shift in temperature and driving the evolution of these horses.

Their findings also provide clues to what might happen to animals in the near future from global warming. Secord said:

One of the issues is that warming during the PETM happened much more slowly, over 10,000 to 20,000 years to increase by 10 degrees, whereas now we’re expecting it to happen over a century or two.

So there’s a big difference in scale. One of the questions is, ‘Are we going to see the same kind of response?’ Are animals going to be able to keep up and readjust their body sizes over the next couple of centuries?

Bottom line: A study in Science on February 24, 2012, suggests that temperature was the most likely factor driving decreases in the body size of the earliest horse, during a global warming event 56 million years ago.

Read more from the National Science Foundation

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