March 17, 2015

Condylarths: Mystery of Darwin's 'Strangest Animals' Solved

The evolutionary mystery of two animals dubbed by Darwin as “ the strangest animals ever discovered” has been solved after 180 years of uncertainty thanks to a new scientific technique.

Researchers say they have figured how these two creatures evolved. One is a horse-like animal with a long snout and the other is a rhinoceros-shaped animal with a head like a hippopotamus.

Their origins have puzzled palaeontologists for years as they share characteristics with many animals, including elephants, camels and rodents.
Dr Ross MacPhee, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History's department of mammalogy and one of the authors of the study, said: The problem is not a lack of fossils — there are thousands of South American-native ungulate fossils in museums in many countries — nor is it a lack of ideas and possible explanations. Rather, the fundamental problem is that South American-native ungulates display detailed resemblances to a whole range of non-South American groups."

The new study reveals they are both part of an ancient group of mammals known as condylarths native to South America that became extinct 10,000 years ago. 

Condylarths are a sister group of the perissodactyls, which includes modern horses, tapirs and rhinos.

The breakthrough was made possible through analysing the proteins preserved in fossilised bones and the technique could be used to reveal new information about other long-extinct fossilised species.

Protein, collagen in this instance, is preserved better than DNA and scientists say it could allow them to look 10 times farther back in time than current techniques using ancient DNA. But collagen is hard to come by.Of the 45 specimens the team sampled for collagen, only five revealed any protein sequence information.

MacPhee hopes that this method of placing extinct creatures on the evolutionary tree will improve greatly in the coming decades.

With many thanks to Yahoo 7

Picture:W.Norton Publishers.