Have you ‘herd’? Pre-historic animal fossils in Idaho help unravel the evolution of the horse

While Idaho’s state horse is the Appaloosa, the first known horse grazed Idaho land over 3 million years ago.

This discovery of what is now known as the Hagerman Horse happened relatively recently. According to the National Park Service, a cattle rancher named Elmer Cook came across some strange bones while digging in the Hagerman Valley in 1928.

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Scientists from the Smithsonian Institution observed the bones and found they were from an animal that had yet to be discovered. That’s when a group of scientists traveled to Idaho to study the area. They found more three tons of fossils – not only from the Hagerman Horse but also other pre-historic animals. The fossils were eventually shipped from Hagerman back to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC

“The Hagerman Horse Quarry remains the largest single find of equus simplicidensa predecessor of modern horses that lived 4 to 3 million years ago,” the NPS website notes of the expedition.

Today, remains from 200 horses have been found, including 20 complete skeletons.

Tale of the Hagerman Horse

Hagerman Horse (left), Grevy’s Zebra (center), Modern Thoroughbred (right). Photo via the Digital Atlas of Idaho.

According to Idaho State University’s website, the Hagerman horse is the earliest known representative of what would eventually become the animal we are familiar with today. It’s also believed that the horse is more related to the zebra than today’s domestically bred horses.

“Hagerman (Idaho) is also considered one of the world’s key sites for the study of horse evolution, and the discoveries made here have shaped our understanding of this familiar animal,” the NPS website notes.

Idaho’s state fossil

Hagerman Horse fossil. Photo courtesy: National Park Service.

Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument was created in 1988 to preserve one of the richest Pliocene fossil sites in the world. That same year, the state legislature made it the state fossil of Idaho.

The new Thousand Springs Visitor Center is expected to open this spring. The center will feature all-new fossil exhibits and host ranger programs and other activities.

The monument’s trails and overlooks are still open to visitors. In 2023, a new campground is set to open in the area.

To learn more about the Hagerman Fossil Beds, click here.

Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument and the six units of Thousand Springs State Park. Photo courtesy: National Park Service.

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