During the first two years of his voyage aboard HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin collected a considerable number of fossil mammals from various South American localities. Darwin sent all the specimens to the Reverend Professor John Stevens Henslow, his mentor and a close friend. The samples were deposited in the Royal College of Surgeons where Richard Owen began its study. Between 1837 and 1845, Owen described eleven taxa, including: Toxodon platensis, Macrauchenia patachonica, Equus curvidens, Scelidotherium leptocephalum, Mylodon darwinii, and Glossotherium sp.
Macrauchenia, meaning “big neck,” was named by Richard Owen based on limb bones and vertebrae collected by Charles Darwin on January 1834 at Puerto San Julian, in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. The bizarre animal had a camel-like body, with sturdy legs, a long neck and a relatively small head. Owen described as “A large extinct Mammiferous Animal, referrible to the Order Pachydermata; but with affinities to the Ruminantia, and especially to the Camelidae”. Macrauchenia is now considered among the more derived native South American litopterns, an endemic order whose fossil record extends from the Paleocene to the end of the Pleistocene and includes some 50 described genera. Darwin also made inferences about the environment which Macrauchenia lived: “Mr. Owen… considers that they form part of an animal allied to the guanaco or llama, but fully as large as the true camel. As all the existing members of the family of Camelidae are inhabitants of the most sterile countries, so we may suppose was this extinct kind… It is impossible to reflect without the deepest astonishment, on the changed state of this continent. Formerly it must have swarmed with great monsters, like the southern parts of Africa, but now we find only the tapir, guanaco, armadillo, capybara; mere pigmies compared to antecedents races… Since their loss, no very great physical changes can have taken place in the nature of the Country. What then has exterminated so many living creatures?…We are so profoundly ignorant concerning the physiological relations, on which the life, and even health (as shown by epidemics) of any existing species depends, that we argue with still less safety about either the life or death of any extinct kind” (Voyage of the Beagle, Chapter IX, Jan. 1834).
The unusual morphological traits displayed by extinct South American native ungulates defied both Charles Darwin and Richard Owen, who tried to resolve their relationships. Two recently published molecular studies, using protein (collagen) sequence information, found that litopterns as well as notoungulates formed a monophyletic unit that shared more recent common ancestry with Perissodactyla than with any other extant placental group.
A valuable tool for uncovering phylogenetic relationships of extinct animals is ancient DNA (aDNA), although, attempts to use standard aDNA methodologies to collect genetic material from specimens from low-latitude localities have been largely unsuccessful. However, a new study recovered a nearly complete mitochondrial genome for Macrauchenia from a cave in southern Chile. The small size of the mitochondrial genome simplifies the assembly of fossil sequences using de novo methods.
In theory, reconstructing an ancient genome de novo can be undertaken without relying on a close relative’s DNA for guidance, but due to contaminant DNA and low average fragment lengths, de novo assembly is generally considered not computationally feasible. A promising new approach is using the genetic codes of numerous living species as reference points, allowing them to reliably predict the fossil’s likeliest genetic sequences. Using the new approach, the phylogenetic analyses place Macrauchenia as a sister taxon to all living Perissodactyla, with the origin of Panperissodactlya at ∼66 Ma.
Westbury, M. et al. A mitogenomic timetree for Darwin’s enigmatic South American mammal Macrauchenia patachonica. Nat. Commun. 8, 15951 doi: 10.1038/ncomms15951 (2017).
Welker, F. et al. Ancient proteins resolve the evolutionary history of Darwin’s South American ungulates. Nature 522, 81–84 (2015). doi:10.1038/nature14249
Buckley, M. Ancient collagen reveals evolutionary history of the endemic South American ‘ungulates’. Proc. Biol. Sci. 282, 20142671 (2015). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.2671