The Macrauchenia was a large mammal, at nearly ten feet in length, weighing about 2,299 pounds.
Macrauchenia Scientific Classification
Macrauchenia Conservation Status
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Macrauchenia was a genus of camel-like mammals that belonged to the order Litopterna. This enigmatic ungulate lived on the South American continent during the Late Miocene to Late Pleistocene epochs. It became extinct between 20,000-10,000 years ago. Given the bizarre appearance of this mammal, classifying it has been a bit of a head-scratcher for scientists.
Description & Size
Macrauchenia is an extinct genus of mammals native to South America. The genus name Macrauchenia translates as “long llama“. Earlier, when it was discovered, scientists noted the similarity of the fossil to that of the llama. It is also commonly referred to as a camel-like mammal, even though it is not related to camels. Macrauchenia was a large mammal in the order Litopterna, with a long neck and long limbs.
The appearance of Macrauchenia has been a puzzle for scientists for years. Although it had a camel-like body characterized by a long neck, long sturdy legs, and a small head, it had feet that resembled that of modern-day rhinoceros. It was ungulate with one central toe and two side toes.
The Macrauchenia was undoubtedly a large mammal. Scientists estimate that it might have been around 9.8 feet in length and weighed about 2,299 pounds. This puts it around the same size as a black rhinoceros. The Macrauchenia had a full set of 44 teeth in its mouth.
Unlike most mammals, the Macrauchenia’s nostril openings were on top of its head, above and between the eyes. Initially, scientists thought the retracted nostril was used as a form of snorkel similar to how a whale would breathe. Later findings invalidated this belief. Experts suggested a different theory that the retracted nostril means the animal had a trunk or inflated snout similar to the saiga antelope.
More recent findings suggest that the retracted nostril was more of a feeding adaptation. Macrauchenia and other Litopterns were high browsers. They fed on tough and thorny vegetation. The retracted nostrils would have protected their nose from getting impaled by thorns while reaching for leaves.
Diet – What Did Macrauchenia Eat?
Macrauchenia was a herbivore. It most likely lived on grass as well as leaves from grasses. Scientists think it must have had a mixed diet that consisted of varieties of plants that were abundant at the time. The Macrauchenia lived in various habitats and might have been adapted to high browsing on trees and shrubs and grazing on grasses and smaller shrubs.
Habitat – When and Where It Lived
The Macrauchenia lived in various environments across a region that is now present-day South America. Considering how widespread the genus was, their habitat would have ranged from dry to humid lands. Experts think they lived in huge herds and were only present on the South American continent due to the absence of fossils from anywhere else. Males lived separately from their herds. They were the last of their kind, with no close living relatives except distant ones like horses and rhinoceros.
Threats and Predators
The Macrauchenia lived alongside the Smilodon (saber-toothed tiger), which would have been their major enemies. The largest terror birds at the time would have also preyed on young Macrauchenias. The Macrauchenia show adaptations that suggest they were very fast and had high maneuverability, which would have helped them to evade predators.
Other likely predators include the giant short-faced bears, jaguars, and dire wolves. In addition to outrunning predators, the Macrauchenia’s long and powerful legs could deliver a fatal kick to protect it. Also, given its large size, only a few predators would have been able to take it on as an adult.
Discoveries and Fossils – Where It Was Found
Famous scientist Charles Darwin collected the first Macrauchenia fossils in 1834 in Patagonia, Argentina. The find included spine fragments and leg bones. Noting the similarities between the bones of the gigantic creature with that of the Llama, anatomist Richard Owen assigned the name Macrauchenia patachonica to it.
This find was one of the most important discoveries that led to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Since the discovery of the first fossil in Patagonia, more have been discovered in other locations across South America, including Bolivia, Venezuela, and Chile. The oldest fossil of this genus dates back to the Late Miocene (about 7 million years ago), and the last record of them was during the late Pleistocene.
Extinction – When Did It Die Out?
Macrauchenia disappeared from fossil records during the late Pleistocene between 20,000 to 10,000 years ago. It isn’t clear what led to the disappearance of this genus. However, considering the fact that they lived during the ice age at a time of dramatic climatic changes, changing weather conditions could have contributed to their disappearance.
Another theory is that they became extinct due to competition from invading ungulates from North America that had crossed over into South America during the Great American Interchange after a landbridge connecting both continents appeared.
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Macrauchenia FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
When did Macrauchenia go extinct?
Macrauchenia lived in present-day South America until the end of the Pleistocene Epoch. It went extinct around 10,000 years ago.
How Big was Macrauchenia?
Macrauchenia was a large mammal with a body weight of about 2,299 pounds, which is around the same size as a black rhinoceros. It was around 9.8 feet in length.
Why did Macrauchenia go extinct?
Scientists think the Macrauchenia and many other native South American species might have gone extinct due to competition from invading species from North America during the American Megafauna interchange.
What is Macrauchenia related to?
The Macrauchenia has no living descendants. However, it belongs to a group of mammals known as Perissodactyla, along with distant relatives like horses, tapirs, and rhinoceros.
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- Scientific American, Available here: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/laelaps/what-in-the-world-was-macrauchenia/
- Walking With, Available here: https://walkingwith.fandom.com/wiki/Macrauchenia
- Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macrauchenia
- Washington Post, Available here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/06/29/this-bizarre-ancient-creature-mystified-darwin-now-we-finally-know-what-it-was/