Human activity and the extinction of the last wild equids in Europe

Two of the megafauna species that went extinct during what is known as the Late Quaternary Extinction Event correspond to European wild horses and donkeys. Until now, the most accepted hypothesis was that the decline in steppe ecosystems, caused by rising global temperatures and marking the end of the Ice Age, was the main cause of the disappearance of these equines and other mammals such as woolly mammoths or rhinos.

A new study provides evidence to support the theory that human activities, such as competition for the same resources due to the introduction of livestock, may have played a greater role than previously believed in the extinction of the last wild equids of Europe: the wild horse (Equus ferus) and the wild ass (Equus hydruntinus).

In paleontology, the study of the dentition of the species provides a lot of information about its diet. Through the analysis of the wear on their teeth, it is possible to infer what they ingested and, consequently, reconstruct their habitat.

Daniel DeMiguel, from the Miquel Crusafont Catalan Institute of Paleontology (ICP) and the University of Zaragoza in Spain, as well as Flavia Strani, from the University of Zaragoza and the University of Rome in Italy, analyzed the fossil dental remains of horses and wild asses unearthed in La Carihuela (Granada, Spain), which inhabited the southern Iberian Peninsula during the last ice age, between 115,000 and 11,700 years ago. By examining the small marks left by food during the chewing process on the surface of the teeth, they have determined that both species shared the same ecological niche and that, although their teeth were adapted to the vegetation typical of the steppe , could also have fed on other types of vegetation.

This flexibility in the diet introduces a new perspective on the causes of the extinction of Equus ferus and Equus hydruntinus, since it would have allowed them to adapt and survive even after climate change, when the steppe was no longer the dominant landscape. Therefore, the causes of their extinction would be more related to human action than to environmental changes.

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Recreation of the appearance of a specimen of Equus ferus and one of Equus hydruntinus. (Image: Roc Olivé / © Institut Català de Paleontologia Miquel Crusafont. With the collaboration of the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology – Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness)

The research team responsible for the study emphasizes that it is essential to understand how large mammals responded to past climate changes to better understand what effects current global warming will have in the future and, in turn, understand the present of current species and promote efficient conservation measures to protect those that are in danger of extinction.

The study is entitled “The role of climate change in the extinction of the last wild equids of Europe: Palaeoecology of Equus ferus and Equus hydruntinus during the Last Glacial Period”. And it has been published in the academic journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. (Source: ICP)

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Written by Editor TLN

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