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Millions of people rely on horses as their spirited, dedicated, much adored companions. All the other branches of the horse family, known as Equidae, are now extinct. The earliest known horses evolved 55 million years ago and for much of this time, multiple horse species lived at the same time, often side by side, as seen in this diorama. This ancient mammal, called Hyracotherium, is one of the earliest known members of the horse family.

Crow Never Dies

It lived around 55 million years ago in the forests of North America and Europe. Hyracoth erium had four toes on the front feet and three in the back. These relatives of the modern horse came in many shapes and sizes. Some lived in the forest, while others preferred open grassland. Here, two large Dino hippus horses can be seen grazing on grass, much like horses today.

But unlike modern horses, a three -toed Hypohippus tiptoes through the forest, nibbling on leaves. A small, three -toed Nannippus , shown here eating shrubs, ate both grass and leaves. In t he background are several other large mammals alive at that time, including Procamelus, a camel relative; a herd of Dinohippus horses; Gomphotherium, a distant relative of true elephants; and Teleoceras, a hornless rhinoceros. For more than half their history, most horses remained small, fore st browsers. But changing climate conditions allowed grasslands to expand, and about 20 million years ago, many new species rapidly evolved.

Only these species survived to the present, but in the past , small and large species lived side by side.

But there was not a steady increase in size over time. Little Nannippus, shown in the diorama at full adult size, was actually smaller than its predecessors. Like modern -day Equus, Dinohippus had single -toed hooves and ate mostly grass. The other extinct species shown here had three toes and never developed single hooves.

So how did horses end up with single -toed hooves?

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Over millions of years, many horse species lost most of their side toes. The middle toe evolved into a single large hoof, while the other toes became smaller and ultimately functionless. Only one spe cies in this scene, the grazing Dinohippus, has a single hoof. Hooves and long legs help horses run farther and faster on the open prairie, helping them flee from predators and find fresh grass for grazing.

In the forest, where the ground is softer, many horses retained three toes. Horses that moved onto grasslands have longer legs than their forest -dwe lling ancestors. But their leg bones did not all lengthen equally. Mostly it was the bones of the foot that grew longer, with the ankle moving relatively higher up on the leg. Small, leaf -eating horses thrived. Thereafter, dry grasslands replaced much of the North American forest, leading to rapid evolution among horses. By about nine million years ago, most forest browsers had disappeared, leaving primarily grass -eating grazers like those alive tod ay.

This three -toed lineage is now exti nct, but in the past many diverse horses lived side by side. But over millions of ye ars of evolution, many horses lost their side toes and developed a single hoof. Only horses with single -toed hooves survive today, but the remains of tiny vestigial toes can still be found on the bones above their hoofs. Can you find the tiny side toes on these horse feet? Some individuals had three full -size toes; on others, the two small side toes only touched the ground when running. The majority of horse spec ies evolved in North America. From there, they occasionally walked to other continents.

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This map shows how horses spread around the world at three different times. Color -coded map key: [green arrows] About 20 million years ago, three -toed horses called anchitheres crossed to Asia and continued to Europe and Africa. Equus, the ancestor of all horses today, survived only in Eurasia a nd Africa. What ended their 55 -million -year run in North America? The prime suspects are changes in the environment, disease and overhunting by humans who likely killed them for food.

The first horses all had short, broad chewing teeth, like ours. Later horses had teeth three times longer. And it's simple. He lived the life he loves to hate. He practised family law at the family firm; got married; had two children; made big bucks in the housing boom of the eighties, bought buildings, renovated them; lived in the upscale midtown Toronto neighbourhood of St. Clair and Avenue Road.

A magazine life. I was bored," Frolick says.

Crow Never Dies (by Larry Frolick)

That game of putting yourself in some economic niche can be entertaining and has some value, but. So he got divorced in his early forties and wrote a book about it, Splitting Up, Divorce, Culture and the Search for a Real Life and had an epiphany, late one night, a Thursday, in November, some time at the dawn of the nineties. The place was Smooth Herman's on Queen Street West, where you could walk in, hear a James Brown tune playing into the smoky darkness, and sit down at a table with strangers. If you had an inch of beer left in the bottom of your glass, the guy next to you would drink it after you'd left.

It was underbelly culture. It was Other, not part of the materialistic chorus of the Eighties, and it was okay, alive in the recession of the nineties, thriving even, with rich humanity and the colourful characters he loves. Frolick studied anthropology as well as law at the University of Toronto. It is the culture of the places he visits that interests him. Which is why, when he talks of his own life and its ups and downs, it's always in the context of the larger whole, of what was happening in the economy or politically.

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He uses himself as anecdotal evidence of larger cultural symptoms. In his books, he does the same thing. In Grand Centaur Station , he is asking big questions of how history erupts, by throwing himself into an adventure of ideas, people, places and risks. His encounters are amusing and lovingly told. The book reads as an excuse to write brilliantly remembered and perhaps embellished dialogue with those he meets, and to put novel-worthy characters, such as Larissa, his Uzbek guide and translator, who wears "impossibly pointy" shoes of "caramel lizard skin," into its entertaining pages.

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His descriptions are fresh. At one point, he is sick and writes, "I was losing weight as well. I might even lose more weight if I could manage to use the toilet one of these days, but my rectum turned up its nose or whatever you might call it at the condition of the Crim Hotel bathroom and refused to budge.

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A roll of his eyes. His latest unpublished novel is about the dysfunctional culture of Rosedale, one of Toronto's affluent neighbourhoods. His book publisher gently turned him down. So he sticks to cultural investigations. His next book, Welcome to My Country , is "about marginal cultures because they seem to reflect the impact of major global events in a more transparent way," he explains.

But there's a difference between consuming and producing. And that's where I'm at now. I know the cultural lessons that are out there. And I have no interest in seeing a Michael Moore movie, and saying 'Yeah, yeah. There is always telling detail in Frolick's books. And here is his. He married again about nine years ago and has two young children with his second wife, Rosi Zirger, also an anthropologist. They are about to move from the Beaches area of Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake, land of apple trees and white picket fences.

Can't get more white-bread than that.