Pattern of north to south extinction in hipparions confirmed

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New Hipparion ambiguum fossil teeth discovered at the lower archaeological levels at Ain Boucherit. Photo: Made et al.
New Hipparion ambiguum fossil teeth discovered at the lower archaeological levels at Ain Boucherit. Photo: Made et al.

North African three-toed horses gradually became extinct in the Old World from north to south, dying out in Europe and then, finally, in sub-Saharan Africa, researchers have been able to confirm.

Details of the paleontological study on the latest known occurrences of the horse have been published in the German journal Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie.

The findings are based on fossil materials discovered in the Plio-Pleistocene sites of Ain Boucherit and Ain Hanech in northeastern Algeria.

These sites are currently under investigation by a multidisciplinary team of scientists led by Mohamed Sahnouni, who co-ordinates the archaeology programme at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana in Burgos, Spain. He is also with the Centre National de Recherches Prehistoriques Anthropologiques et Historiques Algeria.

Scientific investigations in the area have centered on evidence of the earliest known human occupation in North Africa.

However, excavations in the area have also led to the recovery of new fossils from the rare three-toed horse Hipparion ambiguum at Ain Boucherit, and the dating of the youngest North African hipparion record at Ain Hanech around 1.7 million years ago.

The finds confirm that hipparions became extinct following a north-to-south gradient. This pattern was first described by Georges Louis Leclerc in his book, Histoire naturelle in the 18th century, said Dr Jan van der Made, lead author of the hipparion study.

Hipparion is an extinct genus of the equidae family. It is more primitive than the modern horse, with different teeth and three toes.

Hipparions went extinct in Europe by 2.5 million years ago, in China by 1 million years ago, and in Sub-Saharan Africa between 600,000 and 400,000 years ago.

Like other vertebrates, the north-to-south pattern of hipparion extinction seems to be related to the decrease in global temperatures that started in the Miocene.

In 2018, the discovery of the oldest stone tools at Ain Boucherit, dated to 2.4 million years ago, was announced in the journal Science. In 2021, the Quaternary Science Reviews journal reported the oldest evidence of Acheulean stone artifacts in North Africa dated to 1.7 million years ago.

Sahnouni says finds in the region continue to reveal globally important discoveries about human evolution in North Africa, as well as shedding light on a number of ancient animals.

Made, J. van der Made, K. Boulaghraief, R. Chelli- Cheheb, I. Cáceres, Z. Harichane & M. Sahnouni, 2022. The last North African hipparions – hipparion decline and extinction follows a common pattern. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie, Abhandlungen, 303/1: 39-87. DOI: 10.1127/njgp

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