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A centuries-old horse tooth holds clues to the mystery of the Chincoteague ponies

Popular Science: “The 1947 children’s novel Misty of Chincoteague opens with a dramatic account of a small herd of horses escaping from the wreck of a colonial-era Spanish galleon. According to local folk stories, these same hardy animals thrived on the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague, which lie off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia.  Scholars have long debated the likelihood of this origin story about the population of feral ponies that have made the islands famous. A new genetic analysis of a 16th-century horse tooth from the Caribbean doesn’t settle this question, but does offer some indirect support for the shipwreck tale’s plausibility. Researchers found that the tooth fragment, which was discovered in present-day Haiti, belonged to a horse of southern European origin. Additionally, the specimen is most closely related to the Chincoteague pony breed, the team reported today in the journal PLoS ONE.  “This helps us to have a better idea of what the origins of these early colonial horses are,” says Nicolas Delsol, a zooarchaeologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville and coauthor of the findings. “There is some documentary evidence from the historical literature stating that horses were boarded in southern Spain, where most of the first expeditions came from, but it’s always interesting to see how accurate these early colonial chronicles are.” Michelle Delco, an equine orthopedic surgeon and assistant research professor at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine who wasn’t involved with the research, said the findings “fill in a major gap.”

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