Where did horses come from?

In this newsletter, the effects of wildfires on animals; YouTube is sued for animal abuse videos; why sea otters matter; a timeline of animals in space … and brown pelicans rebound from a threat of extinction.

This article is an adaptation of our weekly Animals newsletter that was originally sent out on October 21, 2021. Want this in your inbox? Sign up here.

By Rachael Bale, ANIMALS Executive Editor

Where do horses come from? No, not like that. Where did they first become, you know, horses?

It’s a lot like the debate over when ancient wolves evolved into domestic dogs. They changed the course of human history, and yet, we know so little about their origins. But now, at least one mystery has been solved. It took more than a hundred scientists across two continents to figure it out, but now we know where today’s horses most likely came from: southern Russia.

New DNA evidence traces them back to a horse ancestor living there between 4,700 and 4,200 years ago, Rebecca Dzombak reports. And within just a few hundred years, these “Russian” horses—which researchers found to have stronger backs and a more docile nature—replaced nearly all the other types of wild horses around at the time.

The subsequent quick development of horseback riding and horse-drawn carriages virtually changed the world. The domestic horse’s spread across Europe and Asia ushered in “the first experiment of globalization,” says Ludovic Orlando, the scientist who led the study. “The world became smaller, simply because we had the horse.”

Read about how researchers figured it out here. (Pictured above, horses gallop at a breeding center in Inner Mongolia.)

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TODAY IN A MINUTE

‘A lot of ground to cover’: That’s how one researcher describes the rush to understand the effects of wildfire smoke on animals. Existing studies cover only about 50 species, including just a handful of mammals, Nat Geo reports. We do know that birds, whales, and dolphins are extraordinarily sensitive to smoke-filled air. (Above, photographer, biologist, and Nat Geo Explorer Tim Laman captured crab-eating macaques on Borneo in 2015, surrounded by smoke from a fire.)

The biggest hippo herd outside Africa? If you guessed Colombia, you are correct. Some 80 or more hippos have thrived in the wild since the 1993 killing of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar, who imported them. But now they’re edging out native species, so authorities are on their way to sterilizing all of them, the BBC reports.

Koalas vaccinated against chlamydia: A sexually transmitted disease found among humans is also widespread among Australia’s koalas. About 400 koalas will be vaccinated and microchipped before their release. The bacterial disease, which can be spread from mother to newborn, can cause debilitating eye inflammation and even blindness or infertility, CNN reports.

YouTube sued: A lawsuit accuses YouTube of supporting the "creation, production and circulation" of animal abuse videos by failing to remove them. Lady Freethinker, an animal rights nonprofit, says the site has ignored efforts to get clear violations taken down. Nat Geo has reported continued animal suffering and exploitation in fake rescue videos on the platform. YouTube says it’s enforcing its ban, and has removed hundreds of thousands of videos, the New York Times reports.

Behind the escape: The zebras on the loose in Maryland have gotten a lot of attention, but the breeder, Jerry Holly, has remained an enigma. DCist examined public records and found an exotic animal breeding business in two states that has included large cats, primates, giraffes, and bears. Holly has been cited for more than a hundred violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including failure to maintain fencing, as well as unclean housing and water for animals, Rachel Kurzius reports.

PHOTO OF THE DAY

On the rebound: Brown pelicans were once threatened with extinction due to pesticide pollution, hurricanes, and oil spills, but today they’re thriving in coastal habitats in the southeastern United States, crucial nesting grounds for the species. Photographer Gretchen Kay Stuart captured a photo of a brown pelican in the Florida Panhandle (above), stretching its pouch with a bill throw. A settlement from BP helped restore some of the damage caused by the largest oil spill in history, including an important nesting ground in Louisiana. “This restoration is a huge deal,” Erik Johnson, Audubon Louisiana’s director of bird conservation, told National Geographic in 2020.

READ ON 

THE BIG TAKEAWAY

A diversity of bones: Did you know there are four types of animal skeletons? Hydrostatic skeletons, for example, are fluid-filled cavities inside invertebrates, including jellyfish, flatworms, nematodes, and annelids such as earthworms. External skeletons, or exoskeletons, are the hard casings that protect arthropods, such as insects, crustaceans, and spiders, Liz Langley reports. (Pictured above, an x-ray photograph of pot-bellied seahorses taken around 1910 shows their exoskeleton, which is rare among fish.)

THE OTHER SKELETONS 

IN A FEW WORDS

LAST GLIMPSE

Why sea otters matter: These endangered predators with lush fur, the thickest in the animal kingdom, contribute to richer and more diverse seagrass meadows. That’s because when they dig and claw for clams on the seafloor, they encourage eelgrass to flower and make seeds. Imperiled by climate change, eelgrass meadows disturbed by otters have a better chance at staying healthy and surviving, Douglas Main writes. (Pictured above, a sea otter on a seaweed-covered rock in Prince William Sound, Alaska.)

READ ON 

And for subscribers, don‘t miss: This arresting timeline of animals in space, part of a package in the November issue of National Geographic.

Today's newsletter was curated and edited by David Beard, Jen Tse, and Monica Williams. Do you have an idea or a link for the newsletter? Let us know at david.beard@natgeo.com.

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