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.
Eleven Aymara indigenous women, ages 42 to 50, who worked as porters and cooks for mountaineers, put on crampons – spikes fixed to a boot for climbing – under their wide traditional skirts and started to do their own climbing.
These women have now scaled five peaks: Acotango, Parinacota, Pomarapi and Huayna Potosí as well as Illimani, the highest of all, in the Cordillera Real range.
All are higher than 19,500ft (6,000 meters) above sea level Bolivia’s cholita climbers scale highest mountain yet.
Photographs by David Mercado/Reuters
Aymara indigenous women Lidia Huayllas, 48, and Dora Magueno, 50, stand near Milluni lake, with Huayna Potosí mountain in the background.
Housed in a magnificent early 20th century theater, El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is one of the biggest bookstores in South America, and thanks to the vision of architects Peró and Torres Armengol, it is now one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world.
The building originally housed the theater Teatro Grand Splendid in the 1920s that held popular shows, including performances by the famous tango singers Carlos Gardel and Ignacio Corsini.
Later, it was converted into a movie theater and showed the first sound films presented in Argentina. Grand Splendid was once again briefly converted back into a theater. and then back to a movie house.
After the last screening in 1991, poor economic condition forced the theater to be closed down. It was slated for demolition until the Ilhsa Group, owner of the El Ateneo publishing house, stepped in.
They bought the building in 2000 and subsequently renovated and converted it into a book and music shop. It quickly gained recognition as one of the world’s most majestic bookstores.
Austrian photographer Andreas Franke has chosen the Stravronikita, an abandoned shipwreck located just off the Caribbean island of Barbados which suffered a fire with no hope for reclamation over 20 years and was resigned to an eternity at the silent depths of the sea.
Franke has resurrected the fossilized wreckage through an ongoing photographic series called ‘The Sinking World’.
With the series Stavronikita Project he explores the flamboyant and extravagant late baroque style of Rococo.
The Viennese artist determined that this European era, this age of decadence with all its intoxicating extravagance, its vanity and disdain would sign-on to the Stavronikita.
But did he really determine it? Was the Stavronikita not rather urging him to do so? The wreck full of lavish life demanded a match as overflowing and abundant as Rococo, its ideal equivalent.
Andreas Franke is in the business for more than twenty years.
For Luerzer‘s Archive he is among the “200 Best Photographers“.