Ancient Giraffe Relative Was Evolution’s Headbutting Champion, Perhaps Besting Dinosaurs

When paleontologist Jin Meng uncovered a bizarre skull in the wide, dry expanse of northern China’s Junggar Basin in 1996, he quickly had a hunch about the preferred activity of the historical animal it came from. The cranium was strong and intensely constructed, with a bony plate of approximately one-inch-thick bone close to the space exactly where the animal’s brow would have been. A several neck vertebrae Meng uncovered nearby were being also conspicuously thickened, implying they ended up constructed to face up to a huge quantity of power. This new species, he realized, may have bested even dinosaurs in the violent sport of headbutting.

For several years, Meng, who is now curator in charge of fossil mammals at the American Museum of Normal Heritage in New York City, and his colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences merely termed their discovery guài shòu, or “strange beast.” Now the weird beast has an formal identify: Discokeryx xiezhi. As Meng and his colleagues explained these days in Science, D. xiezhi lived some 16.9 million decades back and was an early relative of contemporary working day giraffes. As opposed to residing giraffes, whose necks, most researchers have customarily assumed, mainly progressed for foraging at the tops of trees, D. xiezhi’s thick skull and vertebrae were being pretty much surely the consequence of sexual opposition. As the researchers surmised, D. xiezhi males butted heads about mates with a force most likely never ever right before viewed in the animal kingdom and hardly ever seen because.

“When we communicate about giraffes, men and women right away consider about the elongation of the neck,” Meng suggests. “But this species offers another instance of intense adaptation, demonstrating that animals—even types that are phylogenetically related—can evolve in completely various directions.”

In the mid-Miocene, northern China’s up to date desert habitat was warm, wet and appropriate for a varied suite of species to dwell. Meng and his colleagues employed a selection of clues to piece with each other D. xiezhi’s tale at that time. They analyzed enamel from a tooth they recovered and performed CT scans of two skulls they recovered to expose their interior composition. The scientists also compared the animal’s stays with fossils of extra than 50 other species they observed in the same spot, most of which had been ungulates like D. xiezhi. Taken with each other, the evidence indicated that D. xiezhi shared some morphological attributes with fashionable giraffes and was most likely a grazer, possibly feeding on a blend of leafy crops and grasses.

D. xiezhi was not that huge, probably the dimensions of a major sheep, but Meng and his colleagues uncovered that the species’ head and neck were being possibly some of the strongest at any time possessed by a mammal—and possibly any previously creature, too. The scientists characterized D. xiezhi as acquiring “the most complex head-neck joints in mammals identified to day.”

As a measure of just how severe D. xiezhi’s headbutting morphology was, consider this comparison: Pachycephalosaurus was a dinosaur popular for headbutting—its name usually means “thick-headed lizard”—but dinosaur specialists that Meng and his colleagues consulted with confirmed that D. xiezhi’s distinctive head and neck construction in all probability permitted it to stand up to even far more force.

Fierce battles for women choose spot among modern male giraffes (Giraffa) as properly. But when D. xiezhi shares a spouse and children tree with Giraffa, modern giraffes are not direct descendants of the ancient species. Male giraffes use their neck in fight, not their head. Evolution of these elongated necks, the authors mentioned in the paper, may possibly have been for battling and not just to attain up to get obtain to foliage. “Here, as in classical case scientific tests, habits may well have strongly afflicted morphological evolution…, with extreme habits leading to serious morphological evolution in giraffoids,” they pointed out.

“The bottom line is that the head-neck structure in the giraffe people has large range, as discovered by the new fossils,” Meng suggests. “These specialized morphologies reflect the varied existence of these animals.”

Advait Jukar, a paleobiologist at Yale University, who was not involved in the investigate, observes that the evolutionary drivers of modern day giraffes’ long neck is significantly from a settled issue due to the fact woman giraffes also have a lengthy neck, and both males and women have extremely prolonged limbs as perfectly. “In reality, it was very likely a blend of pure choice … for a certain dietary preference and sexual variety in that lineage that drove the evolution of modern day giraffe necks and limbs,” he states.

As for D. xiezhi, even though, its “headgear practically definitely evolved as a consequence of sexual selection and male-male beat,” Jukar suggests. “If you think modern-day giraffes seem weird, their further time family were being even weirder.”