Lesvos in the Past
The Gazelles, Antelopes and Ox of Vatera PDF Print E-mail

Two million years ago, several gazelles, an antelope and an ox lived at Vatera.

There were at least two gazelles, a smaller and a larger one (Gazella borbonica, Gazella bouvrainae), but possibly there was a third and much larger gazelle, too (Gazella aegaea). Gazelles got extinct in West Europe before the end of the Pliocene, but in Southeast Europe they persisted till the very end of the Pliocene, and were known in several varieties, as can be seen in the case of Vatera. Gazelles are elegant ungulates with a slender body, long neck, long legs and S-shaped, ringed horns. Both males and females have horns. Gazelles of the genus Gazella still live today, but only in Africa, the Middle East and India.

Indian gazelles (Gazella gazella), showing three different kinds horns: an adult buck (right), a yearling buck (centre), and an adult female (left). Diorama at American Museum of Natural History, New York (USA).

The antelope (Gazellospira torticornis) of Vatera was much larger than the gazelles. It had spiralled horns, which are like an anticlockwise corkscrew. This antelope was common from Europe to China, and has been found in several Greek localities, other than Vatera. The Gazellospira from Vatera is a bit smaller than most other Gazellospira. The genus Gazellospira got extinct in the Pleistocene, contrary to Gazella. The spiral-horned antelopes of today (Tragelaphini) are not directly related to Gazellospira.

Some rare fragments indicate that there was an ox as well, possibly Leptobos. Leptobos was not as massive as the cattle and bison of today, but smaller and gracile, not unlike the Asian wild oxen (banteng). Another difference with cattle of today is that only the bulls bore horns. These horns are very large and form a large open circle. The Leptobos from Vatera is a bit larger than that from Saint Vallier (France).

The Horse of Vatera PDF Print E-mail

The open terrains around Vatera two million years ago were inhabited by a wild horse (Equus cf. stenonis). This horse was not as large as the domestic horse, and had slender limb bones and a long muzzle with a hollow profile. Most likely, it had stiff upright manes as seen in wild horses and zebras today, striped legs and some striping on the back. It stood some 155 cm at the withers, comparable to a Thoroughbred of today.

Wild horses of today, like this Equus przewalski at Bronx Zoo, New York (USA), have upright manes and a thick, stiff tail. Some wild horses, like zebras and some donkeys show some striping, others, like przewalski’s horse and the onager, have only darkened lower limbs at most.

Horses are odd-toed animals (Perissodactyls), and close relatives of the tapirs and rhinoceroses. The domestic horse (Equus caballus) is a member of the horse family, and so are the donkey (Equus asinus), the zebra’s (Equus burchelli, E. grevyi, E. zebra) and the wild asses or onagers (Equus hemionus) of Asia. The Perissodactyls originated in the late Paleocene, some ten million years after the dinosaurs got extinct. The tapirs and rhinoceroses remained browsers in the tropical forests, but the horses gradually adapted to a grazing life on the steppes.

For this, two major specializations had to take place. Firstly, the horses developed a much faster locomotion than their ancestors to outrun their predators. In the open, you’re much easier spotted by predators, and in addition, you cannot hide so well as in the forest. A faster locomotion in equids is characterized by a reduction of toes – from fully three-toed (Eohippus) to truly single-toed (all Equus)  –, elongation of the limb, and unguligrade locomotion – walking on tip-toes. Horses gradually became specialized runners. Secondly, in order to eat the course grasses of the steppes instead of the softer leaves of the forest, the horses developed a more grinding dentition than their ancestors. This can be seen in the very high crowns of the molars (hypsodont) in the modern horses, which are very different from the low-crowned molars (brachyodont), adapted to a more omnivorous diet, of their ancestors. Grass contains lots of silica, and this abrases teeth, so high crowns are an advantage. In addition, extra crests and ridges on the teeth make them better for grinding the abrasive grass. Lastly, to withstand abrasion even more, a cement layer was developed on the teeth.

The evolution of the horse as presented in Museo di Paleontologia at Florence (Italy).

The evolutionary story of the horse family is not as straightforward as often presented. It certainly does not follow a gradual straight line from Eohippus right up to modern Equus. There are many other branches, apart from that leading to Equus. Once, there was a whole bunch of equids. Especially during the Middle Miocene, about ten million years ago, the diversity within the horse family reached a top. Equids grazed the plains and browsed the forest in huge numbers in both the Old and the New World. Strange as it may be, only one genus made it up to the present day: Equus.



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