Animal That Flummoxed Darwin Finds Its Genetic Home

'Long-necked llama' has been source of paleontological confusion for 200 years
By Josh Rosenblatt,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 28, 2017 9:15 AM CDT
Animal That Flummoxed Darwin Finds Its Genetic Home
An artist's reconstruction of Macrauchenia patachonica   (American Museum of Natural History)

An animal whose pedigree stumped even Charles Darwin has at long last found its place in the tree of life. A study released Tuesday in Nature Communications concludes that the Macrauchenia patachonica, or the "long-necked llama," is part of a sister group of the Perissodactyla placental order, which includes horses and rhinos. The two groups split about 66 million years ago, reports the AFP, right about the time a massive asteroid struck the Earth, causing the extinction of land-roaming dinosaurs. Macrauchenia, which looked like camels without humps and weighed up to 1,000 pounds, lived in what is now South America until the late Pleistocene Era, between 11,000 and 20,000 years ago. "Its outstanding feature, however, was its nose," says study co-author and American Museum of Natural History curator Ross McPhee.

"We have no soft tissue fossils," he continues, "so we don't know whether the nose was developed into an actual trunk, like an elephant's. It would not have looked very much like anything alive today." The new study built on a 2015 study that attempted to determine the animal's lineage through the analysis of ancient collagen, the structural protein found in skin. CNN reports that McPhee and University of Potsdam paleogenomics expert Michi Hofreiter extracted mitochondrial DNA from a Macrauchenia fossil found in South America and employed new techniques in genome recovery, which together allowed them to identify the animal's origins without the DNA of close relatives. Darwin was the first to find the animal's fossils, while in Patagonia in 1834, but neither he nor Richard Owen, the renowned paleontologist he sent the fossils to, was able to place the creature in any known lineage. (As for the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, it hit in exactly the wrong place.)

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