Rising seas, killer storms, droughts, extinctions and money wasted on snowblowers are not the only things to worry about on a warming planet. There is also the shrinking issue.
It happened to Sifrhippus, the first horse, 56 million years ago. Sifrhippus shrank from about 12 pounds average weight to about eight and a half pounds as the climate warmed over thousands of years, a team of researchers reported in the journal Science on Thursday.
The horse (siff-RIP-us, if you have to say the name out loud) lived in what is still horse country, in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming, where wild mustangs roam.
Sifrhippus was not much like the mustangs or any other modern horses. It was the size of a cat, ate leaves rather than grass and counts as a horse only in scientific classification. It might have made a nice pet if anyone had been around to domesticate it, but the first hominids were a good 50 million years in the future.
Its preserved fossils, abundant in the Bighorn Basin, provide an excellent record of its size change over a 175,000-year warm period in the Earth’s history known as the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum, when temperatures are estimated to have risen by 9 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit at the start, and dropped again at the end.
Scientists have known that many mammals appear to have shrunk during the warming period, and the phenomenon fits well with what is known as Bergmann’s rule, which says, roughly, that mammals of a given genus or species are smaller in hotter climates.
Although the rule refers to differences in location, it seemed also to apply to changes over time. But fine enough detail was lacking until now.
In Science, Ross Secord, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Jonathan Bloch, of the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville; and a team of other researchers report on the collection and analysis of Sifrhippus fossils from the Bighorn Basin.
They report that the little horse got 30 percent smaller over the first 130,000 years, and then — as always seems to happen with weight loss — shot back up and got 75 percent bigger over the next 45,000 years. …