Toxodon, Darwin’s very Strange Beast, 1834.

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Toxodon. Illustration by Peter Schouten from the forthcoming book “Biggest, Fiercest, Strangest” W. Norton Publishers (in production)
“Toxodon is perhaps one of the strangest animals ever discovered,” wrote Charles Darwin, a man who was no stranger to strangeness.
He first encountered the creature in Uruguay on November 26th, 1834.
“Having heard of some giant’s bones at a neighbouring farm-house…, I rode there accompanied by my host, and purchased for the value of eighteen pence the head of the Toxodon,” he later wrote.
The beast’s skeleton, once fully assembled, was a baffling mish-mash of traits.
It was huge like a rhino, but it had the chiselling incisors of a rodent—its name means “arched tooth”—and the high-placed eyes and nostrils of a manatee or some other aquatic mammal.
“How wonderfully are the different orders, at present time so well separated, blended together in different points of the structure of the toxodon!” Darwin wrote.
Those conflicting traits have continued to confuse scientists. Hundreds of large hoofed mammals have since been found in South America, and they fall into some 280 genera.
Scientists still argue about when these mysterious beasts first evolved, whether they belong to one single group or several that evolved separately, and, mainly, which other mammals they were related too.
“That’s been difficult to address because they have features that they share with a lot of different groups from across the mammalian tree,” says Ian Barnes from the Natural History Museum in London. “To some degree, people have circled around the same set of evidence for 180 years.”
Now, Barnes’ team, including student Frido Welker from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Ross MacPhee form the American Museum of Natural History, have found a way to break out of the circle.
They recovered a hardy protein called collagen from the fossil bones of Toxodon and Macrauchenia, another South American oddity that resembled a humpless camel. By comparing these molecules to those of modern mammals, the team concluded
“Toxodon looks a bit like a hippo and we now know that the features they share with hippos are probably due to convergence,” says Barnes. “Macrauchenia looks a bit like a camel, but we can now see that it’s not particularly well related to camels.. This has been a longstanding mystery and we have an answer, and that’s satisfying.”
The discovery has bigger implications, though. Many scientists, Barnes included, have recovered DNA from very old fossils. They have sequenced the full genomes of mammoths and Neanderthals, worked out the evolutionary relationships of giant birds, and even discovered entirely new groups of early humans.
But ancient DNA has its limits.
To fish it out of fossils, you need molecular bait, and to design that bait, it really helps to know what kind of animal you’re looking for and what they’re related to. If you don’t, and your only clue is “er, some kind of mammal”, then recovering ancient DNA is hard.
It becomes harder if the fossils are also very old, since DNA has a half-life of around 521 years.
And it becomes absurdly hard if the bones come from warm climates, like most of South America, where DNA degrades even faster than usual.
via Darwin’s “Strangest” Beast Finds Place on Tree – Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Formation of Sharp Mouthed Crocodiles, Costa Rica.

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Image Credit: Photograph and caption by Niklas Weber
When we arrived at the Río Grande de Tarcoles in Costa Rica, I saw a fantastic formation of the sharp-mouthed crocodiles.
I couldn’t help myself, and I started my drone and began to photograph them from the air.
My heart was beating like crazy because I was incredibly excited, on the one hand I was a bit scared for the drone, on the other hand I was so happy about the unique moment.
Source: 2018 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year | National Geographic

The Rare Blue Dragon Sea Slug.

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Depending on your tastes, this bizarre little blue creature may inspire either shrieks of excitement or a bit of discomforted shock, possibly a combination of both.
Meet the blue dragon, one of the weirdest and most wonderful little-known animals in the world.
The proper name of this mythical-looking creature is Glaucus atlanticus, or blue sea slug, and although it is much smaller than its fictional brethren of lore (only about an inch or two in length) it has a host of nasty tricks up its sleeve—er wing?
They spend their lives upside down, attached to the surface of the water and floating along at the mercy of the winds and ocean currents. Blue in color, they blend in with the water in order to camouflage themselves within their environment.
And though petite, these baby dragons are also dangerous.
They store the stings cells collected from these cnidarians within their own tissues, and use them as a defence on anything that bothers them.
Handling a little blue dragon could result in a painful, and possibly dangerous, sting.
Source: Rare Sighting of a “Blue Dragon” Spotted on the Shores of Australia – My Modern Met

Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Times.

medieval-dragon-e1381687718600Dragons – In her book Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Manuscripts, Alixe Bovey explains “the monsters of the Bible are few, but important: the first is the serpent who tempts Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, resulting in their expulsion from Paradise.
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Generally interpreted to be the Devil in disguise, in several ways this serpent is the archetype for demonic monsters of the Middle Ages.
Its snaking body a kind of metaphor for opportunistic cunning, the serpent is able to prey on human weaknesses such as pride and greed.”
The dragon is the ultimate form of the serpent and can be found in many medieval tales. In bestiaries it is said that their most powerful weapon is the tail, which could be used to squeeze and suffocate their prey.
Elephants are said to be their mortal enemy, but one can also find several saints who do battle with dragons.
via Mediavalists

The Happy Frog & Smiling Owl.

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This frog appears to have a big smile for the camera in Russia.
Photograph: Artyom Krivosheev/Barcroft Images

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See more images via The Comedy Wildlife Photography awards – in pictures | World news | The Guardian