Ancient Yukon horse on display in Whitehorse

A fossilized animal that changed what we know about wild horses that roamed the Yukon up until about 12,000 years ago is now on public display.

The Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre at Whitehorse has opened its new exhibit featuring the 26,000-year-old Yukon horse found by placer miners in the Klondike in 1993.

The horse, billed as “the best preserved specimen of a mummified, extinct large mammal ever found in Canada,” has become an exhibit at the interpretive centre after scientific analysis of the animal’s carcass and restoration of its hide.

After the horse’s discovery, scientists from the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa treated the hide and soft tissue, analyzed the animal’s intestinal contents and radiocarbon-dated a bone sample to place its age.

“The results of these tests have substantially changed the scientific view about the Yukon horse,” the territory government said in a release Tuesday. “The hide showed that the animal looked something like Przewalskii’s horse, which still survives today in Mongolia.”

Horses originated in North America about 55 million years ago, but genetic studies suggest a single Late Pleistocene horse species ranged from Western Europe through to Eastern Beringia, a region off the Bering Sea that included unglaciated parts of Alaska, Yukon and nearby parts of the Northwest Territories.

Before its extinction about 12,000 years ago, “the Yukon horse, a relatively small horse closely related to the modern horse, occupied the steppe-like grasslands of Eastern Beringia,” Dick Harington of the Canadian Museum of Nature said in the Yukon release. “It was one of the commonest species known from that region, along with steppe bison, woolly mammoths and caribou.”

Yukon horses, which researchers estimate arose as a species in Beringia about 200,000 years ago, were characterized by a broad head and generally small size, about four feet tall at the withers.

Yukon horses died out likely due to rapid climate change near the close of the last glaciation, Harington said.

Human hunting may have sped up that extinction, he said, but added it’s “difficult to imagine” that overkill alone could have wiped out so many widespread herds.

Modern horses as we know them were re-introduced to North America by European settlers in the 1500s.

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