January 28, 1996
Web posted at: 10:32 p.m. EST
From Reporter Ann Kellan
GAINESVILLE, Florida (CNN) -- Fifteen million years before the direct ancestors of modern-day horses existed, and 15 million years before the saber tooth tiger or man walked the earth, at least three species of horses roamed the forests and grasslands of Florida.
They lived alongside other strange and now-extinct creatures -- including antelope-like creatures with sling-shot antlers, some dog-like creatures and the bear dog.
Through an intricate reconstruction process, researchers at the University of Florida are slowly piecing together the skeletons of all these ancient animals.
Paleontologist Bruce McFadden is one such researcher. He has written a book on the subject and is in charge of a fossil site at Thomas Farm, an area just west of Gainesville which is filled with ancient horse bones.
It was at the farm that an amateur digger uncovered the first skull found in Florida of a tiny dwarf horse -- the smallest of the three species of horses.
"The dwarf horse is exceedingly rare," said McFadden. "We have various finger bones and leg bones and some rib fragments of this animal, but what we really needed was the skull to complete the skeleton."
A medium-sized horse from 18 million years ago weighed about 75 to 100 pounds -- about the size of a large dog.
The dwarf horse was about half that size, weighing 30 to 40 pounds.
"This animal probably lived in small herds or small bands," said McFadden. "These animals probably lived (a) maximum life span of about...six or seven years at most."
According to McFadden, the dwarf horse had three toes that helped stabilize and propel it when it galloped. The researcher believes dwarf horses had sharp pointy teeth and probably ate leaves. But forests were disappearing and grasslands were taking over Florida.
The modern-day horse has compensated with long wide teeth to break down the tougher-to-eat grasses.
McFadden hypothesizes that the dwarf horse didn't effectively make the transition from leaf- to grass-eater and that may be the reason it became extinct.
McFadden says this dwarf horse became extinct around 16 or 17 million years ago, long before the evolution of the horse we know today.
But in studying dwarf horses and other animals that lived then became extinct, researchers get more clues into how modern-day animals evolved.
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