Macrauchenia (literally "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, and M. patagonica disappears from the fossil record during the late Pleistocene, around 10 thousand years ago. M. patagonica was the best known member of the family Macraucheniidae, and is known only from fossil finds in South America, primarily from the Lujan Formation in Argentina. The original specimen was discovered by Charles Darwin during the voyage of the Beagle. 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 7 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 and Windhausenia and the large notungulates Toxodon and Mixotoxodon. These last original South American hoofed animals died out eventually at the end of the Pleistocene, along with numerous other large animals on the American continent (such as American elephants, horses, camels, saber-toothed cats and ground sloths). As this genus was the last of the litopterns, its extinction ended that line of mammals.
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. One insight into Macrauchenia
's physiology is that it apparently had unusually good mobility, being able to rapidly change direction when it ran. It is speculated that since Macrauchenia
lived in an environment much like the savannas
of modern-day Africa, it may have had a tawny coat to match the color of dried grass.
Macrauchenia is known, like its relative, Theosodon, to have had a full set of 44 teeth.
Diet and behavior
Macrauchenia was an herbivore, likely living on leaves from trees or grasses. Scientists believe that, because of the forms of its teeth, it 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.
first arose, it would have been preyed upon by the largest of native South American predators, terror birds
such as Andalgalornis
, and carnivorous marsupials
such as Thylacosmilus
. During the late Pliocene
/Early Pleistocene, the Panama Isthmus
formed, allowing predators of North American
origin, such as the puma
, the jaguar
and the saber-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 vicuña or camels.
was first discovered at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Patagonia
(Argentina) by Charles Darwin
, during his voyage aboard the HMS Beagle
. He mistakenly identified it as a giant llama
. Since then, more Macrauchenia
fossils have been found, mainly in Patagonia, but also in Bolivia
is featured in the episode "Saber-tooth" of the show Walking with Beasts
, and indviduals are featured in the 2002 Blue Sky film Ice Age
and its sequel, the 2006 film Ice Age: The Meltdown
. It was included in the Zoo Tycoon: Complete Collection
as part of the Dinosaur Digs Theme Pack and in Wildlife Park 2: Crazy Zoo
as a cloneable beast.
- Barry Cox, Colin Harrison, R.J.G. Savage, and Brian Gardiner. (1999): The Simon & Schuster Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Creatures: A Visual Who's Who of Prehistoric Life. Simon & Schuster.
- Jayne Parsons. (2001): Dinosaur Encyclopedia. DK.
- Haines, Tim & Chambers, Paul. (2006): The Complete Guide to Prehistoric Life. Canada: Firefly Books Ltd.