An interesting twist on animal history


I was intrigued to read that the semi-wild horse herd on Assateague Island, off the shores of Maryland and Virginia, may have a more interesting ancestry than previously thought.

Where did the ponies come from? Until recently, most historians and scientists have thought that the herd grew from horses left to graze by English settlers. Local folklore, however, told a different tale — that the ponies escaped from the wreck of a Spanish galleon. While the coast has seen many shipwrecks, there is no record of any such Spanish wreck carrying horses.

Now, there is evidence that the legend of the Spanish galleon may be plausible. National Geographic reports that DNA preserved in a fossilized horse tooth found 1,200 miles away in the Caribbean may lend credence to this supposedly mythical shipwreck. In a study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers posit that the tooth belonged to a cousin of the ponies roving Virginia and Maryland’s barrier islands.

Importantly, both the Caribbean horse and Chincoteague ponies share an evolutionary lineage that originated in Bronze Age Spain, says study co-author Nicolas Delsol, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Florida.

. . .

Beyond identifying the origins of the ponies, Delsol believes this tooth fragment has an even greater story to tell: It hints that Spanish settlers were sailing further north into the mid-Atlantic region when their ship sank.

There’s more at the link.

We know that the mustang herds out west had their origins in Spanish colonial-era horses, either lost by their owners or stolen by Native American tribes.  Their numbers grew as the USA expanded westward, and horses escaped or were lost by cowboys and settlers and joined their wild cousins.  However, all the “wild” horses on the east coast had traditionally been assumed to have been lost from English colonies.  This DNA evidence changes that.

The most remarkable thing to me is that the horses survived a shipwreck at all.  When carried on a sailing ship, they would normally have been confined in makeshift stalls erected in the hold.  They would have to be lowered into the hold, and swung up out of it, using slings passed beneath their bodies, and blindfolded to stop them struggling.  I’d have thought that a ship foundering at sea, or going aground on the coast, would have sunk or broken up without there being any opportunity to get the horses out of the hold.  Was it just one or two wrecks that produced the herd, or was it several, with only a few horses surviving each time, then getting together on the offshore island to form a herd?  Fascinating speculation, but I suppose we’ll never know for sure.



  1. Either from foundering on the shore of the island, or being forced off the ship a little ways away (tossing horses off was the usual way to get horses from ships to land where a dock doesn't exist,) horses will find a way to dry land.

  2. Not really apropos of anything, you can see remnants of those wild mustang heards here in Tulsa. There is a sanctuary for them on the east side of town and one can often see them from the highway.

  3. Sable Island has horses thanks to shipwrecks.

    As for Spanish sailing north ip the Atlantic coast, that was already well known. In fact, it was known that on occassion, during the American Colonial period ships inbound from England altered course to avoid Spanish ships.

  4. This is not new information – One of the books that I read as a child (probably over and over again!) was "Misty of Chincoteague" written in 1947 by Marguerite Henry – a fictional book based on the real horses of Assateague Island – from a wrecked Spanish galleon and a real story of one of the families on Chincoteague Island.

    A fantastic children's book for those of your with children or grand children!

  5. Gotta agree with DaveS here — I had a few books about the Assateague/Chincoteague herd as a kid in the late 70's that mentioned that the horses were thought to be from a Spanish shipwreck too.

    Everything old is new again, it seems.

  6. Yet again self appointed experts thought they knew better and were proved wrong…
    There was more activity in more places than we know about.

  7. We have two wild horse herds near us, one in the Pryor Mountains and another in the McCullough Peaks. I've seen both and, when all is said and done, they look like horses. I understand, however, that the conformation of the Pryor Mountains herd is unique and DNA suggests a greater than expected tie to old Spanish breeds.

  8. Examining the genetic variation of DNA found in the mitochondria is one way to determine the number of female "founders" in a population and to establish approximately when that happened.

    Unlike the other DNA found in the cell, the mitocondria receives no genetic coding from the sperm. It is generally believed that the mitocondrial DNA mutates at a relatively constant rate so if you have four distinct "families" of mitocondrial DNA than you can assume 4 founding matrons. If the families are very, very similar then the population was spun off recently. If the families show more variation then it is safe to assume the population was isolated a longer time ago.

  9. I hereby nominate the following sentence from the OP as the stupidest sentence ever composed this year:

    "While the coast has seen many shipwrecks, there is no record of any such Spanish wreck carrying horses."

    Do a lot of drowned mariners return to their points of origin to record the location of their wrecks, or am I missing something? Or did the Spanish routinely send record-keepers ahead to hitherto virgin shores to record the wrecks thereupon?

    When last I looked, the seas have claimed ships pretty regularly and randomly since men first sailed upon them, and the location of a wreck is determined solely by fate, and noted to be anywhere from last port to intended destination when a ship simply disappears, and a swath 3000 miles wide on either side of said route.

    This is news…where, exactly?

    So I'm guessing this was penned by the same writer who wrote the classic line "Hey! Listen, Pete! I hear a white horse coming!" for the old Lone Ranger radio show. Or perhaps his son.

  10. Wanting to see what Assateague Island and its ponies looked like, I did an exhaustive search on YT (took 2 secs!) and the first vid that popped up mentioned "Misty of Chincoteague" as the motivation for making the trip and the video and there it is on the shelf in the visitor centre:

  11. As far as records of Spanish shipwrecks, the "Archive of the Indies" in Cadiz has many records of when and where ships were wrecked, as early Spanish explorers and traders tended to sail in company.
    Mel Fisher researched here to help him find the Atocha wreck.

  12. The Outer Banks of NC have wild horses too. It's fun to drive around after midnight and see a mare and foal walking around the Winn Dixie parking lot in Duck or Corolla

  13. 1) I don't think you would need to go all the way back to bronze age Spain to find commonality with Caribbean horse and the Chincoteague ponies. If you look at the Puerto Rican Paso Fino and the ponies you will see very similar builds and size.
    2) Not to nitpick, but they are feral horses, not wild horses. Domesticated stock who have lived on their own.
    3) My wife and I have been to the islands to look at the ponies on several occasions in the fall. The place is nasty in the summer with biting flies and mosquitoes. The stallions and mares have no problem bitung or kicking you if you crowd them.
    4) Yes my wife has a painting of Misty of Chincoteague we bought on one trip. She is a crazy horse lady and and we still have a couple of horses on the place.

  14. Sailors used to release horses to distract the sharks. This is mentioned in the story of the wreck of the Birkenhead.

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