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DNA evidence may link Chincoteague pony origins to Spanish shipwreck

Wild ponies are seen at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Accomack County, Va., on Dec. 19, 2018. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Before beginning his latest research project, Nicolas Delsol had never even heard of Misty of Chincoteague, one of the fabled feral ponies from the barrier island of Assateague, along the Maryland and Virginia coast. Local legend has it that the horses descended from survivors of a Spanish shipwreck 500 years ago, though that has never been proven.

But now Delsol, a French-born archaeologist, has evidence that the story may be more than just a myth. Delsol unearthed a genetic connection between the wild breed and horses from 16th-century Spain.

Along the way, the doctoral candidate at the University of Florida has become well versed in the children’s book that made the Virginia horse a household name to generations of schoolkids.

Misty of Chincoteague,” written by Marguerite Henry and published in 1947, opens with the story of a Spanish galleon that runs aground, leaving the horses on the ship to swim to Assateague Island. Centuries later, two children on the island — based on a real family — save up to buy a pony and its foal, Misty.

“It’s a nice story,” Delsol said. “I learned quite a lot of things during my research, especially how the book had such a strong cultural significance on children’s literature in the United States.”

By accident, Delsol discovered DNA evidence linking the Chincoteague ponies to horses that once were ridden on the Iberian Peninsula in Europe. While reviewing the results of genetic tests done on colonial cattle remains found at Puerto Real — a Spanish settlement established in 1507 in what today is Haiti, on the island of Hispaniola — he realized that one of the samples was not from a cow. A single tooth found at the site came from a horse, which had most likely been shipped to the island from Spain.

When Delsol checked DNA from feral and domestic equine populations in North America, he found a very close link between the Puerto Real horse — probably used to herd cattle five centuries ago — and the ponies on Assateague.

“I compared it with modern sequences and found the closest relatives of this horse were the Chincoteague ponies,” he said. “At first, I didn’t know about this breed, so I didn’t think much about it. But then it was like, ‘Wait! What’s their story?’ ”

So Delsol did a deep dive and learned that locals believed the ponies came from a sunken Spanish galleon. He read the section of “Misty of Chincoteague” about the horses’ scramble ashore from the shipwreck.

“It was amusing to find it mentioned in a novel,” he said. “Kind of surprising when you relate it to the high-tech research we are doing.”

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Delsol and his team of researchers published the results of their study in the scientific journal Plos One on July 27.

While technically a horse, the Chincoteague breed is referred to as a pony because of its small size, which scientists believe is the result of its diet of nutritionally poor marsh grass. The horse is usually multicolored, similar to the American paint horse, also known as a pinto.

Since 1835, residents of nearby Chincoteague Island have been “penning” ponies — removing some of the horses from Assateague for use on the mainland. That practice continues today under federal supervision to prevent populations from getting too large. Today on Assateague, there are about 150 horses on the Virginia side and 80 on the Maryland side of the federally owned barrier island.

Delsol said his research does not prove that the Chincoteague ponies descended from shipwrecked horses, but it certainly lends credence to the theory. Either way, the DNA evidence strongly suggests that the horses came from Spain.

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“The horse at Puerto Real and the Chincoteague ponies likely came from southern Europe, probably Iberia, which is where Spain is,” he said. “There are earlier studies that hint of an Iberian origin for these horses from Chincoteague, but our study confirms it more strongly.”

He added, “However, we still don’t know how the horses got to the island — whether they were shipwrecked or if the Spanish landed on this island at some point and left them there, possibly planning to come back for them later.”