Hipparion, the argymak of prehistoric steppes

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Especially interesting fact is that one of the centers of hipparion fauna habitat was almost the whole territory of the modern Kazakhstan hundreds years ago.

When we recall hipparion, we normally mean the whole fauna assemblage – hipparion fauna – remnants of which we can see today in African savannas. Giraffes, rhinos, elephants (and mastodons), antelopes, hyenas, and big predators such as the standing-out fierce sabre-toothed tiger Machairodus – almost the whole territory of Earth teemed with all these animals in ancient times.

However, the first person to pay attention to it in 1928 was Yuri Orlov, the young paleontologist (afterwards he became academician, director of Paleontology Institute, Academy of Science USSR), and it was Kazakhstan where it happened. That’s what he tells us about his discovery in his book The world of ancient animals (one of the best works on popular paleontology!):

“After settling in the hotel I went for a walk from the steamship hithe along the tow path downstream of Irysh River, scrupulously peeping into the quarry of sands and clays of the right bank. When I reached the place called back then The Goose Passage or Razgulyai, I saw white pieces of mammals’ bones and teeth lying on the tow path and partly in water… Giraffe, rhinoceros, a small horse… some hyena-like predators were easily identified with the swiftest glance at this mass… I was so much astounded by my discovery at the riverbank in the heart of the city where geologists come each year that I felt abashed. Having come to my senses, I started to hastily collect my findings; when my backpack was full, I took off some of my clothes, quickly turned them into sacks and filled them with so many bones that I could hardly lift them”.

What a funny show this must have been – the future big head of science drags his pants filled with bones along Irtysh river! After this, Muscovites were digging The Goose Passage for two years, and then Kazakhstani scientists were doing the same thing for many more years. The found remnants and whole skeletons belonged to tens of thousands of animals, among which the most numerous traditionally were hipparions. And The Goose Passage name became the synonym for the whole fauna assemblage among the specialists. And this Goose Passage located on the right bank of Irtysh within Pavlodar city is one of the richest ‘cemeteries’ of that very hipparion fauna.

In popular scientific sources and periodicals hipparion is often called “the small three-toed horse” and “the ancestor of modern horses”. Both facts are equally far from truth.

Hiparion really was three-toed – researches see in the lack of one united hoof signs of its habitat being not the dry steppe or savanna, but some wet expanse (or periodically wetted, for example, with season rains) with soft soil (when walking on it, it used the surface of all three toes). The climate on Earth used to be different in the ancient times. But hipparion was not at all small. There were hipparions size of the today horse (for example, Hipparion longipes), and there also were very tiny ones, though (Hipparion elegans). But modern horses vary in sizes, too – from Vladimirskyi puncher to miniature ponies – although this is the achievement of not only the nature, but people, too.

The thing is that hipparion wasn’t represented by only one representative alone – paleontologists know at least more than 50 of its species. And it’s not surprising, if we take into consideration areal limits of it (the whole northern hemisphere from America to Europe) and the extensive period of time during which numerous herds of archaic three-toed horses were the habitual element of the nature on Earth – almost 20 millions of years (they emerged in the period of Miocene).

And the fact that hipparion wasn’t the ancestor of modern horses is disputed by very few researches now (such a hypothesis had existed before). It is regarded as the dead end, forever left in the past.

The question about emerging of hipparions and their ancestral ‘homeland’ is much more interesting. The greatest preference is given to the suggestion according to which hipparions emerged in America, and from there, with some other fauna representatives, they walked over the natural Bering bridge and passed to the Old World. But this is also only a hypothesis, which must be proved.

One of the whole skeletons of hipparion is at the Museum of Pavlodar. The other (given here) is at the Museum of Nature under the Academy of Science in Almaty. And the given reconstructions of this animal’s appearance are made by different authors on the basis of different findings. Thus looked the most numerous inhabitant of local expanses million years ago… 

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