Utah: 16,000 years old horse unearthed in Utah

Paleontologists recently determined that a skeleton discovered during a landscaping project belonged to a horse from the Pleistocene Era.

NYTimes 03/05/2018
An illustration of Haringtonhippus francisci, an extinct horse species that was found in North America during the last ice age. Rick Hunter, a Utah paleontologist, said the horse, whose skeleton was discovered in a Utah backyard, may have looked similar to this.CreditJorge Blanco

The horse had arthritis when it died. It is possible, too, that it had bone cancer in one ankle.

That can happen to any horse once it gets to be a certain age. This one is nearly 16,000 years old.

Paleontologists last week identified the skeleton of a horse from the ice age in Lehi, Utah — a particularly unusual discovery given that much of the western part of the state was underwater until about 14,000 years ago. Buried for thousands of years beneath seven feet of sandy clay, the remains were discovered only when the Hill family began moving dirt around their backyard to build a retaining wall and plant some grass.

Laura Hill said she and her husband, Bridger, uncovered the skeleton last September, but didn’t think much of it at first. They wondered if it was a cow; Lehi is about 15 miles from Provo and was once mostly farmland that hugged the edges of nearby Utah Lake. She consulted a neighbor, a geology professor at Brigham Young University, who examined the bones, and guessed they were from a horse from the Pleistocene Era.

“I was shocked,” Ms. Hill said. “This is something we did not expect.”

Image
The skeleton during excavation. Some of the bones were damaged from exposure to the elements.CreditRick Hunter

Utah is home to several fossil sites where dinosaurs and other ice ageanimals, including mammoths, mastodons and saber-toothed tigers, have been discovered. Horses have roamed North America for 50 million years, said Ross MacPhee, a curator in the department of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History. During the Pleistocene Era, the continent was dominated by two kinds of horses, he said, adding that he believes today’s domesticated horses are linked to one of those breeds. Despite harsh conditions, Mr. MacPhee said, “those horses could live anywhere.”

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Rick Hunter, a paleontologist at the Museum of Ancient Life, a short drive from the Hill home, said Ms. Hill approached him last month to investigatethe family’s discovery.

“She came in and said, “I found a skeleton in the backyard and I don’t know what to do,’” Mr. Hunter recalled. “I replied, ‘I do.’” Last week he and a team from the museum’s lab, where they study dinosaur fossils, went to her home.

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The skeleton was missing its head, but was otherwise intact. Mr. Hunter estimated the horse to be the size of a Shetland pony; it was found lying on its left side, with all four legs tucked near its torso. Parts of the skeleton were damaged from exposure to weather. Curious onlookers had picked at the ribs and other bones.

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