Finding Fossils in Idaho: The Hagerman Horse



Millions of years ago, the land of North America was a very different place. Lakes and rivers existed in places that they don’t today, and over the course of time, floods and rivers cut deep valleys and swaths through the land. Very different animals roamed the land as well. Changes in the climate, terrain, and weather all contributed to the evolution, and extinction, of animals that used to live here. Today, all we find are fossilized remains of once majestic creatures that walked across the very land we live on now.

You would never know it now, but Idaho used to be home to some very different animals. Millions of years ago, the amount of rainfall and precipitation was much higher, which created beautiful floodplains, where lush meadowlands were able to grow. One of these areas is Hagerman.

Prehistoric Animals

Although much has changed, the Snake River still plays a large role in creating a habitat suitable for sustaining a varied amount of animal life. However, animals we don’t see natively used to call Idaho home. Several million years ago, camels and mastodons roamed the plains of Idaho, sustained by plentiful floodplains and yearly rainfall.

Apart from camels and mastodons, very different creatures used to call Idaho home as well. Sabertooth cats used to hunt here, although very few fossils have been found. But that’s not entirely unusual. There are always fewer predators. Carnivores typically have a lower population than the herbivores, and it all makes sense when you consider sustainability. In order for populations to prosper, there needs to be a fine balance in the food chain. This, then, makes sense that there have been relatively few sabertooth cat fossils found in Idaho. Their numbers were fewer. But they did exist.

There have been over two hundred different species of plant and animal fossils found in Hagerman. This tells a story that Idaho used to be much different. Lush grasslands were fed by rivers and rain, and this created the perfect environment for the many herbivores that used to live here. However, one discovery outshined the rest.

The Hagerman Horse

Large animals like the camel or mastodon weren’t the only ones that roamed across North America and Idaho. Believe it or not, North America was also home to horses, millions of years before the Spanish introduced them to the continent. Of course, these prehistoric horses were different from the modern horse. They were more closely related to the zebras of Africa, and were much the same size as the modern day zebra.

The Hagerman Horse was actually the first true horse. Over time it evolved, and become the modern day horse. However, like the camels, the horses of North America became extinct. There is still no known cause of the extinction, but it is theorized that a dramatic climate shift, as well as the possible prehistoric humans using them as food, contributed to the extinction of the North American horse.

In the scale of global time, this extinction was relatively recent. Only 10,000 years ago, native horses were still calling North America, and Idaho, their home. Even though they evolved, the Hagerman Horse left evidence of their existence in the form of fossils. The discovery of these fossils was important for a couple of reasons.

The sheer quantity of fossils that were discovered in Hagerman was staggering. There were over two hundred individuals discovered. This includes both sexes. Close to thirty complete skeletons have been discovered, and hundreds of partial skeletons have been unearthed. In fact, Hagerman holds the largest amount of fossils of a single species than anywhere else. And the entire fossil bed is one of the richest in the world for the period.

Beyond that, this find was important for another reason. The Hagerman Horse shows that there were native horses here in North America. And that they evolved. The Hagerman Horse is the earliest that’s been found, and it shows just how much life North America was able to support.

Fossils in Idaho

The Hagerman Fossil Beds are an incredible place to visit. There are still digs being performed, and even more fossils are being found. It’s an incredibly rich area, and sheds light on the Idaho of millions of years ago. You can see some of the fossils that have been collected, and even the complete skeleton of the Hagerman Horse if you explore the visitor’s center. Learn about the Idaho you never knew, and just how diverse the animal and plant population used to be. You’ll step back into a different time that existed in your own backyard.

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