Charles Darwin is most known for his theories supporting evolution. His work helped develop some scientific understanding of biological and evolutionary changes. But there was always one animal which baffled him. Thanks to advances in fields which deal with DNA composition, the mystery has been solved.
Darwin was stumped when he discovered the fossils of a bizarre Ice Age animal in 1834 during his famous voyages on the HMS Beagle. The creature was found with a limited number of bones making identification difficult. Not only that, Darwin couldn’t even place the mysterious critter in a group because he simply had no idea what it was. Later, the bones were given to renowned paleontologist Richard Owen for research, but he also had no answers as to what the animal was.
It took 180 years for the mystery to be resolved, and it’s all thanks to advancements in the decoding of DNA. A new study has reconstructed the DNA of this strange creature to finally place it on the evolutionary tree. The research, led by the University of Potsdam, was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.
The animal in question is Macrauchenia patachonica, a mammal that’s believed to have gone extinct in South America between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago, when it suddenly disappeared from the fossil record. It’s a long-necked, long-limbed mammal that looks a bit like a mash-up of a camel, a giraffe, and an elephant straight out of a fantasy film for kids. But despite these vague similarities to well-known animals, the M. patachonica did not have any close living relatives, making its identification very tricky indeed. –IFLScience
In the image below, the Macrauchenia patachonica’s fossilized skeleton is displayed. It is the larger of the two animals.
This new project gathered bone samples collected across South America and extracted the mitochondrial DNA from its ancient collagen protein. The team discovered that it actually belongs to a lineage that split from Perissodactyla, an order of odd-toed ungulates that includes horses, rhinos, and tapirs. The two groups are thought to have diverged about 66 million years ago.
“We now have found a place in the tree of life for this group, so we can now also better explain how the peculiarities of these animals evolved,” Michi Hofreiter, lead author and paleogenomics expert at the University of Potsdam, told CNN. “Paleontologists until modern days have been confused by these animals,” Hofreiter told Gizmodo. “Reconstructing a reliable sequence from these short DNA segments with only distant relatives, that’s a challenge.”
And that was not easy to do. DNA tends to degrade over time, especially if it’s kept in a warm climate for thousands of years. The researchers effectively had to piece together the DNA from the short sequences of genetic material from numerous different individuals. This was made all the tougher because the animal has no close living relatives for the researchers to “fill in the missing spaces”.
“A big thing to underline is there have been vast improvements in what people have been able to do with ancient DNA because of improvements to instrumentation and software,” said Hofreiter.
Mystery solved, according to scientists.
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