Understanding Tapir


Fossils of Macrauchenia patachonica, as depicted in this artist’s reconstruction, baffled Darwin. The odd mammals disappeared about 12,000 years ago. Credit Jorge Blanco

I am sure I remember seeing these in my childhood collection of books with pictures of prehistoric creatures. Like many boys, the saber-tooth tiger was a favorite, which may explain my preoccupation with the big cats at Chan Chich Lodge. When you favor cats, you get to know their diet, so creatures like these in the image above were also among those I was fascinated by, which would explain why the tapir I have seen in the forests surrounding Chan Chich are among my lifetime favorite wild animal sightings. Thanks to Steph Yin for this story:

Strange Mammals That Stumped Darwin Finally Find a Home

It looked like many different animals and, at the same time, like no other animal at all.

From afar, you might think it was a large, humpless camel. Tall, stout legs ending in rhino feet carried a body weight potentially equal to that of a small car. Its neck stretched like a giraffe’s before giving way to a face resembling a saiga antelope’s. From this face extended a fleshy protuberance, similar to a mini elephant trunk or a tapir’s proboscis.

When Charles Darwin first found its fossils in southern Patagonia during his Beagle voyage, he was baffled. He sent specimens to Richard Owen, an English paleontologist, who guessed the animal was a gigantic, llamalike beast and named it Macrauchenia, meaning “large llama.”

Since then, many researchers have taken a stab at pinning Macrauchenia to the tree of life. Their speculations differed wildly, grouping the extinct beasts with animals as varied as elephants and aardvarks or camels and hippos.

Now, 180 years after Darwin’s discovery, scientists have confirmed that Macrauchenia were distant relatives of horses, rhinos and tapirs, members of a group known as Perissodactyla. In a study published last week in Nature Communications, the researchers estimated that Macrauchenia diverged from Perissodactyla between 56 million and 78 million years ago…

Read the whole story here.

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