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Paleontologists have solved the mystery of the evolution of the long neck in giraffes

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The fossils of the giraffe’s ancestor, Discokeryx xiezhi, have revealed why this species developed such a long neck through evolution, researchers from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the authors of the study said.

How the giraffe’s long neck evolved has long been a mystery. Many scholars believe that this is related to the adaptation of this species to ingesting food from tall trees. According to Chinese scientists who conducted a series of observations, the elegant and long neck serves as a weapon in courtship for giraffes, and this may be the key to the mystery of their evolution. These conclusions were published in the scientific journal Science on Wednesday 2 June.

Discokeryx xiezhi species research

Giraffes use their two to three meters long necks to forcefully strike the aspirated heads (the skin-covered columnar or cone-shaped bone structures on their heads) on the weak body parts of their competitors. As a result, the longer the neck, the greater the damage to the opponent.

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Scientists at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and their colleagues conducted a study on the ancestor of a giraffe – Discokeryx xiezhi. As it turned out, male neck length was directly related to the social hierarchy, and courtship competition was the driving force behind the evolution of the size of this body part.

Fossils Discokeryx xiezhi used in this study found in the Early Miocene strata approximately 17 million years ago on the northern edge of the Jungar Basin in the Xinjiang region. These were the skull and four cervical vertebrae.

Discokeryx xiezhi it was distinguished by many rare features among mammals, including a large disc-like osseon in the center of its head, said Professor Deng Tao, a palaeontologist and author of the study. He added that this single osseon made the animal resemble Xiezhi, a creature in ancient Chinese mythology from which the fossil was named.

Giraffes are characterized by a long neckShutterstock

Fight for females

The team showed the intricate connections between the skull and the cervical vertebrae Discokeryx xiezhi they are particularly suited to quick head to head blows. Experts found that this structure was far more effective than in modern animals such as the musk ox, which are adapted to hitting the head. In fact, Discokeryx xiezhi it may have been the vertebrate best suited to head-banging.

– Both living giraffes and Discokeryx xiezhi they belong to the giraffe family. Although their skull and neck morphologies differ significantly, the two species share a battle between males and females, said Wang Shiqi, lead author of the study.

The research team also analyzed the environment in which they lived Discokeryx xiezhi. The land was then in a warm period and was densely forested, but the Xinjiang region where he lived Discokeryx xiezhiit was a bit drier than other areas.

– Stable isotopes in tooth enamel indicate that Discokeryx xiezhi he lived in open grasslands and could migrate seasonally, said Meng Jin, another author of the study. For the animals of that time, the grassland was more barren and less comfortable than the forest environment. Violent combat behavior Discokeryx xiezhi could be related to the survival stress caused by the environment.

At the beginning of the emergence of the first species of the giraffe family, a similar environment existed. About seven million years ago, the East African Plateau also changed from a wooded environment to an open grassland, and the immediate ancestors of the giraffes had to adapt to new changes. It is possible that among the ancestors of this species from this period, males during the mating season developed a way of attacking competitors by waving their neck and head. This extreme struggle, assisted by sexual selection, led to a sharp elongation of the giraffe’s neck within two million years, resulting in the present species.

Due to this elongation, giraffes were well adapted to living in the niche of high foliage eating. However, their ecological status was necessarily less safe than that of cattle and deer. As a result, the marginal ecological niche of giraffes may have fostered extreme intraspecific courtship competition, which in turn may have fostered extreme morphological evolution.

https://www.eurekalert.org

Main photo source: Shutterstock



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