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DNA Helps Solve The Mystery Of A Bizarre Ancient Creature That Had Puzzled Charles Darwin

First Posted: Jun 30, 2017 05:22 AM EDT
Macrauchenia: Illustrated By Jorge Blanco
Scientists, including Charles Darwin, have long been trying to definitively classify the Macrauchenia patachonica. A team of researchers recently succeeded.
(Photo : GeoBeats News/YouTube screenshot)

A strange animal that last lived 12,0000 years ago during the Ice Age had mystified evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin. Now, the animal has finally been identified and found its place in the tree of life.

According to Science Alert, an international team of researchers analyzed the mitochondrial DNA extracted from the animal’s fossil discovered in a southern Chile cave. On the basis of their study, the researchers categorized the animal as Macrauchenia that belonged to a sister group Perissodactyla, thereby placing the strange mammal in its correct evolutionary context. The Perissodactyla group itself includes tapirs, rhinos, zebras and horses. Macrauchenia’s lineage split from modern perissodactyls about 66 million years ago, during the time dinosaurs went extinct.

The animal looked like a bulky and humpless camel that had a long neck like a llama and its nose was a short trunk. The scientists have, however, pointed out that they still do not know if the nose had developed into an actual trunk like an elephant’s or was more similar to that of a tapir’s. Irrespective of what the trunk looked like, according to the research team, the animal would not have resembled any living animal today.

Incidentally, Darwin had discovered the fossil of this creature, along with many other extinct animals, and categorized them as the South American native ungulates in 1834. The fossils were then handed over to British palaeontologist Richard Owen. However, neither of the two could classify the animal to a distinct mammal lineage or identify a modern-day counterpart. Moreover, the scientists only had the vertebrae and a few limb bones to carry forward the identification process.

"I'm pleased to see that our ancient protein results for Macrauchenia are verified using this advancement in ancient DNA alignments of a deeply diverged mammal without close modern relatives," researcher Frido Welker said, as CNN reported. "Overcoming the absence of a close relative while achieving a near-complete mitochondrial genome is impressive."

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