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Nine-million-year-old giraffes did not have long necks, researchers say
FOSSILS of giraffes dating back nine million years found in a Madrid archaeological dig have shed light on how the species has evolved – and revealed that the earliest examples did not have the characteristic long neck of present-day ones.
According to the Miquel Crusafont Palaeontology Insitute of Catalunya (ICP) and the National Museum of Natural Sciences (MNCN), the Decennatherium Rex is the earliest-known and most primitive giraffe species and a direct ancestor of the tall spotted varieties people travel to safari parks worldwide to see.
Nowadays, the giraffe family has only four species, which live in the sub-Saharan African savannahs, plus the Okapi, a distant relative which lives in the forests of the Congo and does not have a long neck.
The fossils were uncovered at a dig on the Cerro de los Batallones hill in Torrejón de Velasco, just outside the city of Madrid – yet, in modern times, they are only ever found on the African continent, except for those bred in captivity in safari parks.
They have been dated to the end of the lower Myocene era, which started around around 19 million years ago – although those actually found are 'only' around nine million years old – a time when the Eurasian and African continents were joined by land and giraffes were able to wander between what is now, in fact, three continents.
This ancient giraffe species was unknown until a few days ago when the MNCN and ICP team finished their analysis of fossils found over a period of 10 years – a collection said to be 'one of the best in the world ever discovered' of the giraffe family.
A report on the finding, published in the magazine Pius One, cites the ICP's associate researcher Israel M. Sánchez as saying: “Unlike today's giraffes, the Decennatherium Rex did not have the distinctive long neck, and also had four osicons – a pair of antler-like appendices above the eyes and another pair, much larger and more curved, behind.”
The nine-million-year-old giraffes are thought to have had a body mass of just under a tonne, making them smaller than modern-day giraffes but slightly larger than an Okapi, or somewhere between the two.
Cranial and dental features seen in the fossils – featured on the second photograph, taken by the MNCN - have allowed the team to determine that the earliest species of giraffes had a mixed diet.
“In contrast to those of today, who mainly eat branches and twigs, the Decennatherium Rex lived off leaves, fruit, branches and grass,” the Pius One article says.
The Decennatherium Rex is believed to have lived among the first African hominids, or the earliest species of human.
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