Monday, 3 July 2017

DNA Solves 200-Year-Old Mystery of Weird Ice Age Creature




By Mindy Weisberger, Senior Writer | June 27, 2017 01:05pm ET

An odd extinct mammal that lived in South America during the last ice age had a long neck like a llama's, three-toed feet like a rhino's and what may have been a tapir-like trunk. This peculiar combination of traits fueled a mystery lasting nearly two centuries about how to classify the bizarre beast.

The Macrauchenia genus has puzzled scientists since Charles Darwin discovered limb bones and vertebrae fossils "of some very large animal" in Patagonia and fancied it to be a mastodon, as he wrote in a letter to his mentor, the naturalist John Stevens Henslow, in March 1834. Upon analyzing Darwin's finds, the scientist Sir Richard Owen declared in a species description published in 1838 that the creature resembled a camel, but uncertainty remained about where Macrauchenia fit on the mammal family tree.

The recent discovery of a rare DNA sample from the unusual species provided a crucial missing piece: genetic evidence confirming Macrauchenia lineage and its closest relatives, scientists reported in a new study. 

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