Why the long face? Comparative shape analysis of miniature, pony, and other horse skulls reveals changes in ontogenetic growth
Much of the shape variation found in animals is based on allometry and heterochrony. Horses represent an excellent model to investigate patterns of size-shape variation among breeds that were intentionally bred for extreme small and large sizes.
We tested whether ponies (wither height < 148 cm) have a diverging size-shape relationship in skull shape as compared to regular-sized horse breeds (wither height > 148 cm, here-after called horses) during ontogenetic growth. We used a dataset of 194 specimens from 25 horse and 13 pony breeds, two of which are miniature breeds (wither height < 96.5 cm)—Falabella, Shetland. We applied three-dimensional geometric morphometrics, linear measurements, and multivariate analyses (Procrustes ANOVAs) to quantitatively examine and compare the ontogenetic trajectories between pony and horse breeds with an emphasis on the miniature breeds as an extreme case of artificial selection on size. Additionally, we tested for juvenile characteristics in adult horse and miniature breeds that could resemble “paedomorphosis”—retention of juvenile characteristics in adult stage; e.g. large eyes, large braincase-to-face-relationship, and large head-to-body relationship.
Allometric regression of size on shape revealed that 42% of shape variation could be explained by variation in size in all breeds. The ontogenetic trajectories of ponies and horses vary in slope and therefore in rate of change per unit size, and length. The differences in trajectory lengths and slopes result in ponies having a similar skull shape in an older age stage than horses of the same size in a younger age stage. This pattern could cause the generally perceived “paedomorphic” appearance of ponies. Miniature breeds have larger heads in relation to wither height compared to horses, a non-paedomorphic feature in horses specifically. Also, rostra (faces) are longer in adult individuals than in juveniles across all kinds of breeds. This pattern can be explained by the long-face hypothesis for grazing ungulates and could possibly be caused by the mismatch of selection by humans for shorter rostra and the dentition of ruminants.
Miniature breed specimens do not exhibit any of the classical mammalian “paedomorphic” features (large orbits, large heads), except for the adult Falabella that has enlarged orbits, possibly because they are herbivorous ungulates that are affected by functional and metabolic constraints related to low nutrient-food consumption. Instead ponies, including miniature breeds, have faster and shorter ontogenetic growth compared to horses, resulting in adult pony skulls looking in part like juvenile horse skulls.