Weird 17-million-year-old giraffe-like creature was an intense headbutter, fossils present


About 17 million years in the past within the grassy plains of north China, an odd-looking creature met one in every of its personal. 

However it was no pleasant encounter.

Key factors:

  • Chinese language palaeontologists have recognized a brand new giraffe-like species from 17-million-year-old fossils
  • The unusual fossils reveal the animal was possible some of the excessive head-butters round
  • The findings present how numerous early giraffe family have been

The giraffe-like animal did not have large tooth or claws to tear its opponents to shreds, however its fossils present that it was completely constructed for one more fight type: head-butting.

So, it went face to face with its opponent.

Often called Discokeryx xiezhi, the hoofed herbivore sported a rock-solid cranium, helmet-like headgear, and chunky neck joints that might soak up the violent affect of combating higher than right this moment’s head-butting heavyweights of the animal world.

The findings have been revealed right this moment in Science.

Jin Meng, a vertebrate palaeontologist on the American Museum of Pure Historical past in New York, mentioned the brand new species was a long-lost member of Giraffoidea, a superfamily that features modern-day giraffes, okapis and pronghorns.

Its distinct head and neck options are an instance of simply how assorted historic members of this group have been, mentioned Dr Meng, who co-authored the examine. 

“It exhibits how numerous life might be when dwelling below totally different circumstances, and that they’ll evolve in a very totally different means, although they’re associated.”

A ‘unusual beast’

Dr Meng and his crew stumbled throughout the fossils throughout excavations at a web site within the Junggar Basin in Xinjiang, north-west China nearly three a long time in the past.

Embedded within the 16.9-million-year-old sediment layer was a set of cervical vertebrae, a jawbone with tooth, and a thick cranium fragment topped with a flattened piece of bone.

“It was similar to an enormous pancake on the cranium,” Dr Meng mentioned. 

The researchers spent years evaluating the oddball stays to museum specimens world wide to establish them, however they could not discover a match. 

“We did not know what it was,” Dr Meng mentioned. 

“So, we simply referred to as it a ‘unusual beast’.”

In 2015, the mysterious fossil bones caught the attention of Shi-Qui Wang, a palaeontologist on the Chinese language Academy of Science’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing.

“It was a puzzle for me,” mentioned Dr Wang, who led the examine. 

Palaeontologists spent years making an attempt to determine what sort of creature the fossils belonged to.(Provided: Wang et al.)

Dr Wang used a CT scanner to take a deeper take a look at the construction of the cranium fragments and in contrast them to 3D scans of modern-day ruminants, together with the giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa) and Reeves’s muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi).

The bony construction of the animal’s inside ear was most just like a giraffe’s, indicating that it was possible from the identical broad group.

Its distinctive headgear additionally confirmed similarities to horn-like, bony buildings seen in giraffes and their extinct family referred to as ossicones.

The crew named the traditional giraffoid Discokeryx xiezhi after “Xiezhi”, the one-horned legendary creature from Chinese language legends. 

The anatomy of a headbutter

The haul of fossils additionally affords clues about D. xiezhi’s battle type. 

The pancake-like headgear had a tough texture, which prompt that it was as soon as lined in tissue that shaped a dome-shaped helmet. 

Its thick cranium additionally hinted that it may take a couple of knocks to the pinnacle.

However it was the huge joints connecting the creature’s cranium with its neck and higher backbone that held the important thing to its head-butting capabilities. 

The sheer measurement of those joints suggests they have been capable of soak up the affect generated by high-speed head-slamming, says Rex Mitchell, who research cranium morphology and biomechanics at Flinders College, and who was not concerned within the examine.

“What you have a tendency to search out with giant components of the bone anatomy is that they are giant to accommodate increased forces,” Dr Mitchell mentioned.

Put via digital crash-test paces

Taking issues a step additional, Dr Wang and his crew determined to present D. xiezhi’s head-butting chops a crash take a look at.

Digital illustration of prehistoric mammal The creature’s cranium was possible lined in a helmet-like dome that protected its mind from damage throughout combating. (Provided: Wang Yu and Guo Xiacong)

The researchers digitally reconstructed the pinnacle and neck joints and used a way referred to as finite ingredient evaluation to check how a lot power they may stand up to.

This kind of simulation is useful for exploring how nicely bones and different objects disperse affect forces below totally different circumstances, together with intense head-butting duals, Dr Mitchell mentioned. 

“It is a wonderful alternative of methodology right here, as a result of it permits researchers to digitally crash-test 3D fashions.” 

When the crew simulated head-butting, there was barely any pressure on D. xiezhi’s head and neck joints. 


For comparability, the crew created one other head-neck joint mannequin that was thinner than the unique. 

Once they utilized the identical power to this flimsier mannequin, the neck bent wildly off form, rendering it ineffective for head-to-head combating. 


Not simply one other sheep

Whereas these crash assessments confirmed that D. xiezhi’s joints have been properly tailored to head-butting, the crew needed to see how they stacked up in opposition to right this moment’s head-to-head fighters.

The crew ran the simulation on fashions on three traditional head-butters: the muskox (Ovibos moschatus), argali sheep (Ovis ammon) and blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur).

The pressure these animals’ joints underwent was as much as 5 occasions increased than D. xiezhi’s, indicating that the prehistoric beast may deal with heavier blows to the pinnacle than right this moment’s high head-butters, Dr Mitchell mentioned.

“This implies that it was an intense headbutter certainly.”

The crew additionally analysed the chemical signatures in D. xiezhi’s tooth enamel to realize a glimpse of its consuming habits.

By these telltale imprints — that are picked up in meals and saved in tooth for hundreds of thousands of years — the crew discovered that the traditional head-butter was an open-land grazer.

D. xiezhi’s chemical signatures have been distinct from different herbivores within the area on the time, suggesting it accessed meals that opponents could not entry. 

To place issues within the greater evolutionary image, the researchers in contrast the horn shapes of a number of animal teams, together with giraffes, cattle, sheep, deer and pronghorns.

Despite the fact that giraffe species right this moment all have related headgear, the crew discovered that their ancestors sported the widest number of horn shapes of all of the teams hundreds of thousands of years in the past.

Dr Meng suspected that this explosion in headgear range amongst giraffe ancestors and their family was formed by their surroundings and combating types, with D. xiezhi’s single “horn” including one other excessive adaptation to the checklist. 

“Though phylogenetically associated to the giraffe, it exhibits evolution in a very totally different route.” 

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Posted 2 Jun 20222 Jun 2022Thu 2 Jun 2022 at 6:30pm, up to date 3 Jun 20223 Jun 2022Fri 3 Jun 2022 at 4:56am


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