Researchers have discovered an ancient animal related to giraffes with a unique “helmet” on top of their heads — which they believe would have been used for butting each other.
The scientists also say this discovery sheds new light on how modern-day giraffes evolved to have long necks.
Fossils of the new creature, which they’ve named Discokeryx xiezhi, were found in northern China. “Xiezhi” refers to a mythical Chinese horned creature. A description of the animal was published on Thursday in Science.
The top of the animal’s head was probably layered in keratin, the same material that makes up hair and nails in humans, as well as rhino horns.
In addition to that protective headpiece, the animal had a unique arrangement of vertebrae in its spine that could have helped them absorb the energy from head-bashes, the researchers believe.
Headbutting, they note, was probably a way for males to compete for mates.
D. xiezhi does not appear to have necks as significantly long as modern-day giraffes. But the study suggests that this evidence of head-bashing supports the idea that giraffes evolved long necks for fighting.
For years, some evolutionary biologists have argued that long necks gave giraffes more power for fighting. Commonly, giraffes will swing their heads and necks around to hit each other.
D. xiezhi lived around 17 million years ago, in a period called the early Miocene. This period was well after the extinction of the dinosaurs, when the planet’s fauna had fully entered what’s known as the “age of mammals”.
Today’s giraffes, native to many parts of Africa, face threats like habitat loss and hunting. As a result, they are listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List.
The closest living relatives of modern giraffes are okapis, a shorter animal native to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Okapis are listed as “endangered” by the IUCN.