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Extinct Three-Horned Species Adds Branch To Giraffe Family Tree

Dec 03, 2015 05:34 PM EST
Three-Horned Palaeomerycid
Xenokeryx amidalae, pictured here, represents an extinct palaeomerycid ruminant and distant relative of modern giraffes.
(Photo : Israel M. Sánchez)

Three-horned animals are mostly the stuff  of ancient mythology, but researchers from Spain recently uncovered fossils of a real life example, known as Xenokeryx amidalae, may be from the same clade as giraffes.

Xenokeryx amidalae represents an ancient palaeomerycid ruminant with a T-shaped horn protruding from the top of its skull. Paleomerycids were strange three-horned Eurasian Miocene ruminants that had specialized stomachs to handle nutrients from plant-based foods via fermentation. This is the same digestive process employed by modern cows, sheep, goats, giraffes and other grazing animals.  

Researchers from the National Museum of Natural History of Spain, Madrid, and colleagues recently examined skull and dental remains of the fossil species in order to better understand where they fit among the evolutionary tree of ruminants, according to a news release.

"Establishing the place of palaeomerycids in the ruminant tree gives us insights into the evolutionary history of the large clade of pecoran ruminants that include giraffes (Giraffa and Okapia) as its only extant survivors, and shows us the amazing diversity of an ancient lineage that inhabited both Eurasia and Africa," Israel Sánchez, one of the study authors from paleobiological department at Spain's National Museum of Natural History, explained.

Based on their findings, researchers concluded Eurasian palaeomerycids are an extinct family of animals related to modern giraffes that lived between 16 and 11.5 million years ago. 

Modern giraffes are native to Africa and among the world's tallest land animals, with only two horns and extremely long legs and neck. While there is only one species of giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), there are nine subspecies that each sport coats with different spot patterns. In fact, spot colors are indicative of where giraffes call home and what they eats. However, the markings of individual giraffes are as unique as human fingerprints. 

The recent study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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