Saturday, April 01, 2017

News: Priceless Fossil Rocking Horse, Once a Childhood Toy, Restored in Minnesota

   The evolution of the horse (Order Perissodactyla) included modification of the foot from five distinct narrow hooves, decreasing temporarily to three and presently to what we consider the remaining "middle toe". The study of that evolution has many chapters, and if you read between the lines and follow the footnotes, many colorful characters.

An early ancestor of the modern horse, known as Mesohippus, stood about six hands high and roamed the Great Plains of North America. While it did have three toes, the middle toe was somewhat dominant and looks somewhat similar to the coffin bone in today's Equus caballus.

The evolution of the horse has been the center of controversy for centuries. While many once (and some still) insist on describing the horse's evolution by counting toes in reserve order, the pre-history of the horse is described to be more like a bush than as a straight-limbed tree. The late American evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould warned his readers not to celebrate the evolution of the horse as the perfection of evolution; he likened the modern horse to a mere twig on a very non-linear bush.

Last year a museum in Minnesota unveiled an exhibit that will make you smile, and hopefully want to learn more about the evolution of the horse's foot. It is called Mesohippus Mirabilis, and it makes child's play of the serious and often misinterpreted subject of equine evolution.

British paleontologist Sir Richard Owen,
who was the first to group equidae with
the rhinoceros and tapir, based on foot
anatomy. He named the order 
Perissodactyla, otherwise known 
as the "odd-toed ungulates".
Minnesota sculptor Michael Bahl, credited with restoration of this amazing children's toy, described its origin:

"This specimen was transformed in Great Britain circa 1857 by Emily David, a protegee of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, one of the early sculptors of life-sized prehistoric statuary. It is believed to have been made for a grandson of Sir Richard Owen, the foremost paleontologist of the period. 

"The rocking horse was kept at the family home in Sussex until 1914 when its history becomes clouded by the storms of The Great War. When, in 1933, the grandson passed away in Paris, no mention was made of the piece.

"Following World War II as new construction forced the relocation of many cemeteries throughout Europe, the horse was discovered in a private mausoleum near Warsaw. In the chaos and secrecy of the Cold War, it vanished once more, only to resurface in rural North Carolina where it was purchased for restoration."

But it is alive in our imaginations, thanks to the artist whose expertise at anatomy extends to knowing the exact location of the often-elusive human funny bone.

Mesohippus mirabilis is currently on display at the The Museum of Paleo-Osteological Interpretation in St. Paul, Minnesota, where artist Michael Bahl invites observers to exercise their own imaginations as they consider that these forms that they have always viewed as science might also be seen as works of art that can be enjoyed with unanticipated and even playful enthusiasm.

And perhaps they even were.

Thanks to photographer Lorie Shaul for the remarkable image of Michael Bahl's creative masterpiece.

Learn more about mesohippus (and its toes) at the website of the Florida Museum of Natural History. Also, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins is worth googling; he once held a dinner party inside the mold of one of his dinosaur skeletons in London's Crystal Palace. He really did work with Owen but moved to America to do extensive work for both the Smithsonian and Princeton University. His most famous work is believed to have been the victim of the notorious Mayor Tweed of New York City, who cancelled construction on a paleo museum; Hawkins' dinosaurs-in-progress are believed to still be buried in Central Park

And that's no joke.

(For international readers: April 1 is a special holiday in America, I hope you understand this article's intent!)

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