A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 3, chapter III
The new science of paleontology
The fossil-beds of America
Coincidently with the discovery of these highly suggestive pages of the geologic story, other still more instructive chapters were being brought to light in America. It was found that in the Rocky Mountain region, in strata found in ancient lake beds, records of the tertiary period, or age of mammals, had been made and preserved with fulness not approached in any other region hitherto geologically explored. These records were made known mainly by Professors Joseph Leidy, O. C. Marsh, and E. D. Cope, working independently, and more recently by numerous younger paleontologists.

The profusion of vertebrate remains thus brought to light quite beggars all previous exhibits in point of mere numbers. Professor Marsh, for example, who was first in the field, found three hundred new tertiary species between the years 1870 and 1876. Meanwhile, in cretaceous strata, he unearthed remains of about two hundred birds with teeth, six hundred pterodactyls, or flying dragons, some with a spread of wings of twenty- five feet, and one thousand five hundred mosasaurs of the sea-serpent type, some of them sixty feet or more in length. In a single bed of Jurassic rock, not larger than a good-sized lecture-room, he found the remains of one hundred and sixty individuals of mammals, representing twenty species and nine genera; while beds of the same age have yielded three hundred reptiles, varying from the size of a rabbit to sixty or eighty feet in length.

But the chief interest of these fossils from the West is not their number but their nature; for among them are numerous illustrations of just such intermediate types of organisms as must have existed in the past if the succession of life on the globe has been an unbroken lineal succession. Here are reptiles with bat-like wings, and others with bird-like pelves and legs adapted for bipedal locomotion. Here are birds with teeth, and other reptilian characters. In short, what with reptilian birds and birdlike reptiles, the gap between modern reptiles and birds is quite bridged over. In a similar way, various diverse mammalian forms, as the tapir, the rhinoceros, and the horse, are linked together by fossil progenitors. And, most important of all, Professor Marsh has discovered a series of mammalian remains, occurring in successive geological epochs, which are held to represent beyond cavil the actual line of descent of the modern horse; tracing the lineage of our one-toed species back through two and three toed forms, to an ancestor in the eocene or early tertiary that had four functional toes and the rudiment of a fifth. This discovery is too interesting and too important not to be detailed at length in the words of the discoverer.

 Marsh Describes the Fossil Horse.
"It is a well-known fact," says Professor Marsh, "that the Spanish discoverers of America discovered no horses on this continent, and that the modern horse (Equus caballus, Linn.) was subsequently introduced from the Old World. It is, however, not so generally known that these animals had formerly been abundant here, and that long before, in tertiary time, near relatives of the horse, and probably his ancestors, existed in the far West in countless numbers and in a marvellous variety of forms. The remains of equine mammals, now known from the tertiary and quaternary deposits of this country, already represent more than double the number of genera and species hitherto found in the strata of the eastern hemisphere, and hence afford most important aid in tracing out the genealogy of the horses still existing.

"The animals of this group which lived in America during the three diversions of the tertiary period were especially numerous in the Rocky Mountain regions, and their remains are well preserved in the old lake basins which then covered so much of that country. The most ancient of these lakes - which extended over a considerable part of the present territories of Wyoming and Utah - remained so long in eocene times that the mud and sand, slowly deposited in it, accumulated to more than a mile in vertical thickness. In these deposits vast numbers of tropical animals were entombed, and here the oldest equine remains occur, four species of which have been described. These belong to the genus Orohippus (Marsh), and are all of a diminutive size, hardly bigger than a fox. The skeletons of these animals resemble that of the horse in many respects, much more indeed than any other existing species, but, instead of the single toe on each foot, so characteristic of all modern equines, the various species of Orohippus had four toes before and three behind, all of which reached the ground. The skull, too, was proportionately shorter, and the orbit was not enclosed behind by a bridge of bone. There were fifty four teeth in all, and the premolars were larger than the molars. The crowns of these teeth were very short. The canine teeth were developed in both sexes, and the incisors did not have the "mark" which indicates the age of the modern horse. The radius and ulna were separate, and the latter was entire through the whole length. The tibia and fibula were distinct. In the forefoot all the digits except the pollex, or first, were well developed. The third digit is the largest, and its close resemblance to that of the horse is clearly marked. The terminal phalanx, or coffin-bone, has a shallow median bone in front, as in many species of this group in the later tertiary. The fourth digit exceeds the second in size, and the second is much the shortest of all. Its metacarpal bone is considerably curved outward. In the hind-foot of this genus there are but three digits. The fourth metatarsal is much larger than the second.

"The larger number of equine mammals now known from the tertiary deposits of this country, and their regular distributions through the subdivisions of this formation, afford a good opportunity to ascertain the probable descent of the modern horse. The American representative of the latter is the extinct Equus fraternus (Leidy), a species almost, if not wholly, identical with the Old World Equus caballus (Linnaeus), to which our recent horse belongs. Huxley has traced successfully the later genealogy of the horse through European extinct forms, but the line in America was probably a more direct one, and the record is more complete. Taking, then, as the extreme of a series, Orohippus agilis (Marsh), from the eocene, and Equus fraternus (Leidy), from the quaternary, intermediate forms may be intercalated with considerable certainty from thirty or more well-marked species that lived in the intervening periods. The natural line of descent would seem to be through the following genera: Orohippus, of the eocene; Miohippus and Anchitherium, of the miocene; Anchippus, Hipparion, Protohippus, Phohippus, of the pliocene; and Equus, quaternary and recent.

The most marked changes undergone by the successive equine genera are as follows: First, increase in size; second, increase in speed, through concentration of limb bones; third, elongation of head and neck, and modifications of skull. The eocene Orohippus was the size of a fox. Miohippus and Anchitherium, from the miocene, were about as large as a sheep. Hipparion and Pliohippus, of the pliocene, equalled the ass in height; while the size of the quaternary Equus was fully up to that of a modern horse.

"The increase of speed was equally well marked, and was a direct result of the gradual formation of the limbs. The latter were slowly concentrated by the reduction of their lateral elements and enlargement of the axial bone, until the force exerted by each limb came to act directly through its axis in the line of motion. This concentration is well seen - e.g., in the fore-limb. There was, first, a change in the scapula and humerus, especially in the latter, which facilitated motion in one line only; second, an expansion of the radius and reduction of the ulna, until the former alone remained entire and effective; third, a shortening of all the carpal bones and enlargement of the median ones, insuring a firmer wrist; fourth, an increase of size of the third digit, at the expense of those of each side, until the former alone supported the limb.

"Such is, in brief, a general outline of the more marked changes that seemed to have produced in America the highly specialized modern Equus from his diminutive four-toed predecessor, the eocene Orohippus. The line of descent appears to have been direct, and the remains now known supply every important intermediate form. It is, of course, impossible to say with certainty through which of the three-toed genera of the pliocene that lived together the succession came. It is not impossible that the latter species, which appear generically identical, are the descendants of more distinct pliocene types, as the persistent tendency in all the earlier forms was in the same direction. Considering the remarkable development of the group through the tertiary period, and its existence even later, it seems very strange that none of the species should have survived, and that we are indebted for our present horse to the Old World."[7]





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.