Macrauchenia lived all throughout South America from seven million years ago to as recent as 20,000 years ago, a time period which includes the height of the Ice Age. They weighed about as much as a camel and looks like ancestor of one, or maybe the ancestor of a giraffe. However, these large ungulates were actually distantly related ancestors of modern-day horses. They certainly had long necks, though not as long as a giraffe’s. The name Macrauchenia means “long neck”, and was given to the species by Richard Owen in 1838, four years after the first discovery of a fossil in Patagonia by Charles Darwin, who mistakenly believed them to be the ancestors of llamas.
Due to the positioning of the nasal opening on the skull, it is believed that they could have had a short trunk, like that of a tapir. This places Macrauchenia distinctly in a class all its own, as a litoptern, which are rare and only live in South America. Speaking of tapirs, the two are actually cousins, along with horses. The two branches of the cladogram (like a family tree to show evolutionary history) with Macrauchenia and horses and tapirs split off about 66 million years ago.
Macrauchenia was adapted to live in a variety of climates, ranging from dry higher altitudes in the Andes to more humid coastal regions in Chile and Venezuela. Due to one fossil site containing multiple fossils of Macrauchenia, it is believed that they preferred to live in groups or herds. This could be because of a social nature or as protection from predators.
These large mammals were herbivores. They were opportunistic, eating both grasses and leaves from bushes and trees. Usually, an animal will eat one or the other. Throughout the time that they existed, they would likely have been hunted by terror birds. One possible theory about the cause of their extinction is that other larger or better adapted herbivores out-competed them in their environment. Another is that large cats moved into the area (such as saber toothed cats) and possibly dire wolves, and the species was wiped out from predation. Another, which you will recognize I write about many of these Ice Age megafauna, is that early humans were the cause of their extinction due to hunting. There is also now proof that climatic shifts at the end of the Ice Age led to the death of many megafauna species, and possibly that of Macrauchenia. All of these are plausible theories right now, scientists aren’t sure exactly what happened to them, and the real reason could be multi-faceted and all of these hypotheses are true.
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