Friday, 3 November 2017

Mystery of ‘strange’ South American mammals solved

MARCH 19, 2015

by Brett Smith
Brett Smith for - @ParkstBrett

Based on remains found by Charles Darwin and others, we knew that a group of mammals known as South American ungulates had a body that resembled a camel, nostrils high on their heads and even short elephant-like trunks.

Now, a new DNA analysis has just revealed that these strange animals are closely related to horses, not elephants and other animals with ancient ties to Africa, according to a new study in the journal Nature.

"Fitting South American ungulates to the mammalian family tree has always been a major challenge for paleontologists, because anatomically they were these weird mosaics, exhibiting features found in a huge variety of quite unrelated species living all over the place," said study author Ross MacPhee, a curator in the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Mammalogy. "This is what puzzled Darwin and his collaborator Richard Owen so much in the early 19th century. With all of these conflicting signals, they couldn't say whether these ungulates were related to giant rodents, or elephants, or camels--or what have you."

Note to plastic surgery recipients: Collagen lasts a long time
To reach their conclusion, the study team analyzed DNA from collagen, which can survive for a million years or more in the hot ecosystems of South America. The chemical framework of the amino acids that makeup collagen is determined by particular coding sequences in the organism's DNA. Due to this crucial relationship, amino acid compositions of the same protein in various species can be analyzed, offering clues about how tightly species are related.

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