Hyracotherium misinformation at scientificamerican.com

I am going to give another wag of the finger, this time to Scientific American. They posted a number of paintings of reconstructions of various extinct “horses” in a picture gallery titled “Ancient Miniature Horses”, which includes an entry for the famous “dawn horse”, Hyracotherium.

However, the problems lies not in the painting, which is probably a reasonable guesstimate of what Hyracotherium might have looked like in life but rather with the blurb of information included with the painting:

Hyracotherium This genus of small early horse roamed the early woodlands of Asia, Europe and North America some 55 million to 45 million years ago. It was already larger than Sifrhippus, weighing about 22.7 kilograms. But when Richard Owen first discovered Hyracotherium in 1876, it was so diminutive that he thought it was some unknown hyrax species, a group of extant mammals that live in Africa and the Middle East. 

Painting by Heinrich Harder used by S.A.

No, no, no, a thousand times no! It is bad enough when creationists claim that Hyracotherium is merely a hyrax (rather than a ancestral horse) and claim that Richard Owen thought so as well but to have a venerable science publication like Scientific American falling into the same pit of misinformation is extremely vexing.

Regular readers of this blog will have to forgive the repetition from earlier posts (see links below) on the subject of Hyracotherium, but until this information becomes common knowledge (at least among those who should know better), I am going to keep hammering at it.

Yes, Richard Owen did indeed name the fossil Hyracotherium and this does literally mean “hyrax-like beast”, however he did not intend this to be taken to mean it was in fact a species of hyrax or even that it was all that similar to a hyrax. In fact he specifically repudiated the idea of a close resemblance in the very paper in which he first described and named Hyracotherium:

The general form of the skull was probably intermediate in character between that of the Hog and the Hyrax. The large size of the eye must have given to the physiognomy of the living animal a resemblance to that of the Hare and other timid Rodentia.

Without intending to imply that the present small extinct Pachyderm was more closely allied to the Hyrax than as being a member of the same order, and similar in size, I propose to call the new genus which it unquestionably indicates, Hyracotherium, with the specific name leporinum. (Owen 1841, emphasis mine)

The “Order” Owen is referring to here is “Pachydermata” (after Cuvier) which is no longer considered a valid taxon. It included elephants (as should be obvious from the name), a variety of even-toed ungulates (cows, deer, hippos, pigs etc.), odd-toed ungulates (tapirs, rhinoceros and horses), as well as the hyraxes.

Now, if Owen’s specifically stating his naming of Hyracotherium wasn’t intended to imply either identity or even close similarity between the genus and hyraxes was insufficient to make my case, further evidence can be found in a paper Owen wrote a few years later in which he attempted to refine Georges Cuvier’s (the “father” of vertebrate paleontology) classification of “Pachyderms” (Owen 1848). In this paper Owen divided the “ungulatata” up into three different groups, the Proboscidia (elephants), the Artiodactyla (even-toed), and Perissodactyla (odd-toed) and he gave a list of examples of each of these and here is where it gets real interesting (ibid. p.139, color added for emphasis):

As you can see in this paper Owen placed Hyracotherium among the Artiodactyls (even-toed ungulates) and the hyraxes into a completely different sub-group, the Perissodactyla (odd-toed ungulates). If anything this would imply that he thought hyraxes and horses were more similar to each other than either was to Hyracotherium. Of course Owen was mistaken in his classification but he only had a crushed partial skull and a jaw fragment of Hyracotherium to go on so we can be forgiving.

Scientific American on the other could have avoided their mistake by simply checking Owen’s work for themselves rather than relying on what was written in the first hit for Hyracotherium on Google.

I should probably edit the Wikipedia entry myself to perhaps avoid having to write this again in the future…

[A link to this post has been posted at scientificamerican.com]

References

Owen, Richard (1841) “Description of the Fossil Remains of a Mammal (Hyracotherium leporinum) and of a Bird (Lithornis vulturinus) from the London Clay.” Transactions of the Geological Society of London, Series 2, VI: 203-208, 1 plate

Owen, Richard (1848) “Description of Teeth and portions of Jaws of two extinct Anthracotheroid Quadrupeds (Hyopotamus vectianus and Hyop. bovinus)…”, The Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 4(1):103-141

Earlier posts regarding Hyracotherium:

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10 thoughts on “Hyracotherium misinformation at scientificamerican.com

  1. I love it when you cover ancient equids. Please edit the Wiki page.

    That is a shame that Scientific American is the one that brought this up. I know some horse people would also get annoyed that they use the term “Ancient Miniature Horses” to describe ancient equids when miniature horses are a modern breed of horse.

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  2. Pingback: Scientific American Responds, receives a “Tip of the Hat” « Playing Chess with Pigeons

  3. Pingback: Open mouth, insert hoof « Playing Chess with Pigeons

  4. It’s NOT an ancestor to the horse, you daft moron. You can keep hammering at the lie all you want, but those of us with intelligence NOT to be brainwashed know better. Evolutionists are dangerous folk. They’re insane religious fanatics, trying to brainwash people into believing their fairy tale philosophy for which they have NO evidence whatsoever. They’ll lie straight to your face, attempt to argue using fallacies, and then, when they can’t defeat you intelligently, they resort to attacking your character. They’re under the impression that attacking someone’s character some how wins the argument/debate. What’s interesting is the fact that even evolutionists denounce the bullshit theory of evolution and call it the biggest joke in history. What’s even more interesting is the fact that evolutionists, while controlling the insemination of false information through textbooks and magazine publications, are in the minority where science is concerned. The majority of scientists, who follow where the evidence of their work leads, believe in some kind of intelligent design. Of these scientists, most do not call it God (nor do they believe in God). Their voices are silenced by the minority of evolutionists the same way the entire heterosexual world is silenced by a less-than-2% homosexual minority population and the same way our natural citizens are silenced by the minorities who come to live in our countries. If we went to your countries, we wouldn’t have a say in anything and would have to abide by YOUR rules. But you seem to think you can come to OUR country and tell us what we should or should not be doing and get away with stuff we’d never get away with. Our media, owned by the homosexuals, silences MANY voices, too, keeping the truth of what kind of perverts they truly are from our ears. Evolutionists do the same thing to the REAL scientists. They own the magazines and so they say what gets printed, and if they don’t like what you have to say, they fire you. Y’all should watch “Expelled – No Intelligence Allowed” and educate yourself. Evolutionists are brainwashed idiots who will fight tooth and claw to hold onto their crumbling fairy tale religion. They are dangerous folk, almost as dangerous as the Muslims.

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  5. This popped up in my email just now. It’s…amazing. In so many ways.

    Rylore says:

    December 12, 2013 at 2:43 PM

    It’s NOT an ancestor to the horse, you daft moron. You can keep hammering at the lie all you want, but those of us with intelligence NOT to be brainwashed know better. Evolutionists are dangerous folk. They’re insane religious fanatics, trying to brainwash people into believing their fairy tale philosophy for which they have NO evidence whatsoever. They’ll lie straight to your face, attempt to argue using fallacies, and then, when they can’t defeat you intelligently, they resort to attacking your character. They’re under the impression that attacking someone’s character some how wins the argument/debate. What’s interesting is the fact that even evolutionists denounce the bullshit theory of evolution and call it the biggest joke in history. What’s even more interesting is the fact that evolutionists, while controlling the insemination of false information through textbooks and magazine publications, are in the minority where science is concerned. The majority of scientists, who follow where the evidence of their work leads, believe in some kind of intelligent design. Of these scientists, most do not call it God (nor do they believe in God). Their voices are silenced by the minority of evolutionists the same way the entire heterosexual world is silenced by a less-than-2% homosexual minority population and the same way our natural citizens are silenced by the minorities who come to live in our countries. If we went to your countries, we wouldn’t have a say in anything and would have to abide by YOUR rules. But you seem to think you can come to OUR country and tell us what we should or should not be doing and get away with stuff we’d never get away with. Our media, owned by the homosexuals, silences MANY voices, too, keeping the truth of what kind of perverts they truly are from our ears. Evolutionists do the same thing to the REAL scientists. They own the magazines and so they say what gets printed, and if they don’t like what you have to say, they fire you. Y’all should watch “Expelled – No Intelligence Allowed” and educate yourself. Evolutionists are brainwashed idiots who will fight tooth and claw to hold onto their crumbling fairy tale religion. They are dangerous folk, almost as dangerous as the Muslims.

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    • Yes it is interesting. This Rylore person dumped several insult strewn comments on my blog today. I’m still not sure whether I am dealing with an actual true believer or a troll. The fact that they are so loaded with softball claims, name calling and argumentum ad caps lock, makes me highly suspicious.

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  6. You know, it could actually be “Mapou”, since he’s a particularly kooky guy over at UD right now, and I have been referencing the fossil horses over the last few days (although not the pigeonchess blog, although if someone googled fossil horses they might easily find it).

    Some folks at ATBC researched Mapou:

    http://www.antievolution.org/cgi-bin/ikonboard/ikonboard.cgi?act=ST;f=14;t=7305;st=10500#entry229301

    It’s about the right level of wackiness to match, but I haven’t looked for any other correspondences.

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