Macrauchenia: the good and bad of genomic studies

From the Wesbury et al. 2021 abstract
“The unusual mix of morphological traits displayed by extinct South American native ungulates (SANUs) confounded both Charles Darwin, who first discovered them, and Richard Owen, who tried to resolve their relationships. Here we report an almost complete mitochondrial genome for the litoptern Macrauchenia (Fig. 1). Our dated phylogenetic tree (Fig. 2) places Macrauchenia as sister to Perissodactyla, but close to the radiation of major lineages within Laurasiatheria. This position is consistent with a divergence estimate of B66Ma.”

Note they don’t ask us to pay as much attention to the proximal outgroup for Macrauchenia: the clade Carnivora (Fig. 2).

Figure 1. Macrauchenia museum mount.

Figure 1. Macrauchenia museum mount.

According to Wikipedia
Laurasiatheria is a gene-based clade “that includes that includes hedgehogs, even-toed ungulates, whales, bats, odd-toed ungulates, pangolins, and carnivorans, among others.”

Isn’t that an odd assemblage? 
Think about it. According to Wesley et al. (Fig. 2), sabertooth cats are closer to horses, rhinos and Macrauchenia than other long-legged, placental herbivores. By the way, in gene studies elephants appear in an unrelated major clade, Afrotheria.

Figure 1. Gene-based cladogram from Westbury et al. 2021 (slightly compressed to fit). Note the close relationship between Carnivora and Macrauchenia here. That is not replicated in a trait-based study (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Gene-based cladogram from Westbury et al. 2021 (slightly compressed to fit). Note the close relationship between Carnivora and Macrauchenia here. That is not replicated in a trait-based study (Fig. 2).

A more reasonable, trait-based, phylogenetic analysis
(the large reptile tree, LRT, 1794+ taxa, subset Fig. 3) also nests the Macrauchenia clade basal to tapirs, rhinos and horses. The outgroup is the hyrax + elephant + manatee clade, then the artiodactyls, then the mesonychids + hippos + desmostylians + mysticetes. Off this chart (Fig. 3), the clade Carnivora is the basalmost placental clade, not the proximal outgroup to Macrauchenia.

Figure 2. Subset of the LRT focusing on derived placentals. Yellow highlights the Macrauchenia clade.

Figure 3. Subset of the LRT focusing on derived placentals. Yellow highlights the Macrauchenia clade.

Perhaps taxon exclusion is at fault here.
On the other hand, gene studies too often produce such odd interrelationships (Carnivora nesting closer to Macrauchenia than other herbivore clades). Gene studies too often deliver false positives in deep time studies. That’s a fact, not a hypothesis.

If your professor is asking you to help out on a deep time genomic study,
run.


References
Westbury M et al. (21 co-authors) 2021. A mitogenomic timetree for Darwin’s enigmatic South American mammal Macrauchenia patachonica. Nature Communications | 8:15951 | DOI: 10.1038/ncomms15951 |www.nature.com/naturecommunications

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laurasiatheria
reptileevolution.com/macrauchenia.htm

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