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Scientists Use DNA to Crack Ancient Case of Bizarre Creature

Jun 28, 2017 08:53 AM EDT
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Scientists use mitochondrial DNA to solve the mystery of an ancient creature.
(Photo : Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Thousands of years ago, a creature existed that didn't really seem to fit into any classification. Their body parts were a mish-mash of characteristics from different animals: legs of a skinny rhino, face like an antelope and a body like a humpless camel, a report from Gizmodo described.

"Paleontologists until modern days have been confused by these animals," lead investigator Michael Hofreiter of the University of Potsdam told Gizmodo. "Reconstructing a reliable sequence from these short DNA segments with only distant relatives, that's a challenge."

The team of researchers who took on the task were up to the challenge, though.

According to the report from Gizmodo, the scientists analyzed ancient DNA to finally identify this mysterious mammal. The group collected Macrauchenia patachonica from museums all around the world, eventually finding mitochondrial DNA on the bones and sequencing them to compare with existing species.

It turned out the M. patachonica lived in South America until their extinction about 10,000 years ago. The researchers revealed that the order genetically closest to this ancient creature is the one containing odd-toed ungulates that includes tapirs, rhinos and horses.

"It was a fairly bulky quadruped, probably not very fleet of foot," co-author Ross MacPhee of the American Museum of Natural History said in a report from CNN. "Its outstanding feature, however, was its nose. We have no soft tissue fossils, so we don't know whether the nose was developed into an actual trunk, like an elephant's, or was something more like a big fleshy appendage, resembling the tapir's proboscis. It would not have looked very much like anything alive today."

McPhee explained that it would be great to analyze nuclear DNA in the future, which can offer more information. However, there are more mitochondrial DNA in the cell compared to only a single copy of the nuclear.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

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