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Giraffes didn’t evolve long necks for feeding but for fighting and attracting mates, according to new research.
A research team studied the remains of a giraffe ancestor known for having a shorter neck and a hard skull capable of delivering powerful head-butts, the New York Times reported.
First discovered in northwestern China in 1996, the Discokeryx xiezhi had teeth and an inner ear structure that resembled modern giraffes. Researchers determined that the ancient creature lived about 17 million years ago and was one of the earliest giraffids, an ancestral group of hoofed mammals that gave rise to giraffes.
Discokeryx had a shorter, bulkier neck with a peculiar skull: It consisted of a thick dome made from layers of keratin that was anchored to dense vertebrae in the animal’s neck.
The team explained that this bony cap made the extinct creature very adept at head-to-head combat. Discokeryx’s heads were tougher and more durable than their modern counterparts, including muskoxen and Himalayan blue sheep.
Researchers explained that head-to-head combat is important for many animals, including Discokeryx, to resolve conflicts and attract mates. They suggested that sexual selection and competition for mates could have been the main driving force behind the headgear evolution.
In the case of modern giraffes, the authors noted that animals use bony protrusions on their heads and their long necks to whack each other in a fight, according to Science Magazine.
They proposed that just like the Discokeryx, giraffe long necks evolved as a weapon and a method to attract the ladies – while the advantage of feeding on treetops was more of a side benefit.