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Largest Giraffe Relative Had Thick Legs and Curly Horns, Researchers Say

Jan 13, 2016 03:10 PM EST
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Ancient Giraffe
A computer-generated reconstruction of an ancient giraffe species known as Sivatherium giganteum.
(Photo : Basu C. et al.)

Fossils of an ancient giraffe, Sivatherium giganteum, indicate the animal was likely much larger and stockier than its modern counterparts, with shorter legs and a shorter neck. It also had a flat face and massive curly horns protruding from its skull in a much more conspicuous fashion than the ossicones modern giraffes are born with.

"It would have been an impressive and strong animal," co-author Christopher Basu, a doctoral student in the Structure and Motion Laboratory at the Royal Veterinary College in London, said in a statement. "Its face would have looked very different from a giraffe. Giraffe's have very long, pointed skulls. Sivatherium had a very short, flattened skull."

Using 26 fossil bones from London's Natural History Museum, which were originally excavated from India in the 1830s, Basu's researchers built a computerized 3D reconstruction of the ancient giraffe, revealing it would have stood about six feet tall at the shoulder and weighed over one ton.

Researchers believe S. giganteum, which lived between five million and 12,000 years ago in Africa and Asia, represents the largest-known giraffid and possibly the largest-ever ruminant animal – a group that includes cows, buffalo and camels, and is characterized by a unique digestive system comprised of four stomachs.

"Sivatherium has been known to be a large animal, and this paper proves that the body size exceeds that of almost all living and extinct ruminants," Melinda Danowitz, a medical student from the New York Institute of Technology who was also not involved in the study, told Live Science. "Even though the neck is proportionally short, Sivatherium is, without a doubt, the largest giraffid discovered to date."

When paleontologists first uncovered S. giganteum, they misclassified the animal as an archaic "missing link" between modern ruminants and a long-extinct relative of elephants and rhinoceroses. But now, with the help of Basu and colleagues, S. giganteum has firmly been assigned to the giraffid family.

Th study was recently published in the journal Biology Letters.

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