Macrauchenia (“long llama”, based on the now superseded Latin term for llamas, Auchenia, from Greek terms which literally mean “big neck”) was a long-necked and long-limbed, three-toed South American ungulate mammal, typifying the order Litopterna. The oldest fossils date back to around seven million years ago.
In life, Macrauchenia resembled a humpless camel with a short trunk, though it is not closely related to either camels or proboscideans. Macrauchenia appeared in the fossil record some seven million years ago in South America (in the Miocene epoch). It is likely that Macrauchenia arose from either Theosodon or Promacrauchenia. Notoungulata and Litopterna were two ancient orders of ungulates which only occurred in South America. Many of these species became extinct through competition with invading North American ungulates during the Great American Interchange, after the establishment of the Central American land bridge. A few survivors of this invasion were the litopterns.
Macrauchenia had a somewhat camel-like body, with sturdy legs, a long neck and a relatively small head. Its feet, however, more closely resembled those of a modern rhinoceros, and had three hoofs each. It was a relatively large animal, with a body length of around three metres (9.8 ft) and a weight up to 1042 kg.
One striking characteristic of Macrauchenia is that, unlike most other mammals, the openings for nostrils on its skull were atop the head, leading some early scientists to believe that, much like a whale, it used these nostrils as a form of snorkel. Soon after some more recent findings, this theory was rejected.
An alternative theory is that the animal possessed a trunk, perhaps to keep dust out of the nostrils. One insight into Macrauchenia’s habits is that its ankle joints and shin bones may indicate that it was adapted to have unusually good mobility, being able to rapidly change direction when it ran at high speed. Macrauchenia is known, like its relative, Theosodon, to have had a full set of 44 teeth.
Macrauchenia was an herbivore, likely living on leaves from trees or grasses. Carbon isotope analysis of its tooth enamel, as well as analysis of its hypsodonty index (low in this case; i.e., it was brachydont), body size and relative muzzle width, suggests that it was a mixed feeder, combining browsing on C3 foliage with grazing on C4 grasses.
Scientists believe that, because of the forms of its teeth, Macrauchenia ate using its trunk to grasp leaves and other food. It is also believed that it lived in herds like modern-day wildebeest or antelope, the better to escape predators. When Macrauchenia first arose, it would have been preyed upon by the largest of native South American predators, terror birds such as Andalgalornis, and carnivorousmarsupials such as Thylacosmilus and Borhyaena.
During the late Pliocene/Early Pleistocene, the Panama Isthmus formed, allowing predators of North American origin, such as the puma, the jaguar and the sabre-toothed cat, Smilodon populator, to emigrate into South America and replace the native forms. It is presumed that Macrauchenia dealt with its predators primarily by outrunning them, or, failing that, kicking them with its long, powerful legs, much like modern day vicuñaor camels. Its potential ability to twist and turn at high speed could have enabled it to evade pursuers.
Macrauchenia was first discovered on 9 February 1834 at Port St Julian in Patagonia (Argentina) by Charles Darwin, when HMS Beagle was surveying the port during the voyage of the Beagle. As a non-expert he tentatively identified the leg bones and fragments of spine he found as “some large animal, I fancy a Mastodon”. In 1837, soon after the Beagle’s return, the anatomist Richard Owen revealed that the bones including vertebrae from the back and neck were actually from a gigantic creature resembling a llama or camel, which Owen named Macrauchenia patachonica.
Since then, more Macrauchenia fossils have been found, mainly in Patagonia, but also in Bolivia, Chile and Venezuela.
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