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A fossilized tooth may determine the origin of the Chincoteague ponies

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Assateague Island is known for its wild horses. It's a barrier island that crosses the Maryland-Virginia border. And the wild horses that live on it span both sides of the island. But a large herd happens to live in the Chincoteague Wild Refuge, which is on Virginia's part of the island.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

So here's the thing. These horses are not actually wild. They are feral. Horses are not native to these beaches. And due to their slightly smaller size, they're considered ponies. No one's ever been 100% sure how they ended up there. The local legend is that a ship wrecked off the coast centuries ago and the domesticated horses on board swam to shore.

CHANG: But there's never been any records of that ship or any concrete evidence that this could be the case until now.

SUMMERS: One scientist in Florida may have uncovered a connection to the horses and their DNA, and it happened all by accident. Nicolas Delsol is an archaeologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and he actually studies cows.

NICOLAS DELSOL: Cows, like horses and like many other domestic mammals, didn't exist in the Americas prior to the arrival of the Europeans.

SUMMERS: Delsol decided to look into a fossilized tooth that had been with the museum since the '80s. It was originally ID'd as a cow tooth.

CHANG: But it actually belonged to a horse. So he ran some tests and compared it to other public data.

DELSOL: When looking at the most closely related animals, we found out that the closest relative today were Chincoteague ponies, actually.

CHANG: This fossilized tooth was discovered in an archeological site located in Haiti, previously occupied by Spanish colonists.

SUMMERS: Now, this does not confirm the local legends, but this finding might give some credence to that shipwreck theory.

DELSOL: The thing is that - for a fact is that these horses - I mean, the Chincoteague ponies are very closely related to colonial horses from the Caribbean colonies, the Caribbean Spanish colonies.

SUMMERS: And archaeologists like Delsol can learn a lot from discoveries like this.

DELSOL: Through the archaeology, we're studying animal bones, but we are also using the study of animal bones to document human behavior in the past and human cultures. I'm pretty convinced that it will help us also better understand the place of and the role played by horses and potentially other animals in the colonial Spanish society.

SUMMERS: Now, before this finding, Delsol had never heard of the Chincoteague ponies.

CHANG: So maybe another discovery he may have stumbled upon - a new research destination.

DELSOL: I would love to see these horses someday. It sounds like a nice trip. I am curious to see them in their natural setting.

(SOUNDBITE OF GINUWINE SONG, "PONY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.