Ancient horse DNA reveals gene flow between Eurasian and North American horses
New findings show connections between the ancient horse populations in North America, where horses evolved, and Eurasia, where they were domesticated
May 18, 2021 | Tim Stephens | UCSC
A new study of ancient DNA from horse fossils found in North America and Eurasia shows that horse populations on the two continents remained connected through the Bering Land Bridge, moving back and forth and interbreeding multiple times over hundreds of thousands of years.
The new findings demonstrate the genetic continuity between the horses that died out in North America at the end of the last ice age and the horses that were eventually domesticated in Eurasia and later reintroduced to North America by Europeans. The study has been accepted for publication in the journal Molecular Ecology and is currently available online.
“The results of this paper show that DNA flowed readily between Asia and North America during the ice ages, maintaining physical and evolutionary connectivity between horse populations across the Northern Hemisphere,” said corresponding author Beth Shapiro, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.
The study highlights the importance of the Bering Land Bridge as an ecological corridor for the movement of large animals between the continents during the Pleistocene, when massive ice sheets formed during glacial periods. Dramatically lower sea levels uncovered a vast land area known as Beringia, extending from the Lena River in Russia to the MacKenzie River in Canada, with extensive grasslands supporting populations of horses, mammoths, bison, and other Pleistocene fauna.
Paleontologists have long known that horses evolved and diversified in North America. One lineage of horses, known as the caballine horses (which includes domestic horses) dispersed into Eurasia over the Bering Land Bridge about 1 million years ago, and the Eurasian population then began to diverge genetically from the horses that remained in North America.
The new study shows that after the split, there were at least two periods when horses moved back and forth between the continents and interbred, so that the genomes of North American horses acquired segments of Eurasian DNA and vice versa.
“This is the first comprehensive look at the genetics of ancient horse populations across both continents,” said first author Alisa Vershinina, a postdoctoral scholar working in Shapiro’s Paleogenomics Laboratory at UC Santa Cruz. “With data from mitochondrial and nuclear genomes, we were able to see that horses were not only dispersing between the continents, but they were also interbreeding and exchanging genes.”