For a long time, the mysteries surrounding the world’s tallest mammal baffled scientists, but it was recently discovered that giraffes evolved to gain their long necks in stages, and accomplished unique achievements to become what they are today.
- Researchers focused on the caudal and cranial vertebrae by examining the elongating process
- They studied 71 fossils from 9 extinct species and 2 living species of giraffes, lent by museums in Greece, Germany, Kenya, Sweden, Austria and England
- The found that the lengthening process of the vertebra occurred twice, and in two different stages
- The elongation processes started 6 million years apart
Researchers at the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) have made it their mission to better understand the mystery behind the amazing length of a giraffe’s neck. It’s a vicious weapon against predators and a useful tool to reach high vegetation. For many years, it has been strongly believed that they evolved with that purpose.
In order to ascertain how such an exceptional trait happened, they studied the C3 vertebra, the third from the top of the mammal’s spine. It has been a key feature along millions of years of evolution, and its elongation crucial to their observations.
The team of researchers studied a number of 71 fossilized backbone segments of nine extinct and two living species of giraffe, preserved from the late 1800s and the early 1900s. They observed their elongation patterns and tracked it down through a computational model. It revealed the exciting fact that the lengthening of the C3 vertebra occurred twice, and in two different stages. According to lead author of the study and paleontologist, Nikos Solounias, it’s “interesting” that the evolution was not consistent.
Instead, it required elongation in two different directions across millions of years worth of evolution. It occurred disproportionately. The front portion of the C3 vertebra started its lengthening process around 7 million years ago. It began very slowly growing longer into the direction of the mammal’s head. And, this process was suggested to have started among the animal’s now extinct ancestor, Samotherium.
It was only 6 million years later that the back of C3 vertebra even began elongating toward the mammal’s tail. Author of the study, Solounias, has underlined that giraffes are the only species to have ever underwent both processes. It tells the perfect tale of why their long lengths are so unique today. The evolutionary path described properly explains the slender and oddly elongated necks.
Even more, the paleontologists believe that the most primitive of their species actually started off with slightly longer necks than usual. It’s suggested that the process might have started even earlier, around 16 million years ago, before the giraffe family was even created. This solves a riddle regarding this usually enigmatic animal. However, it sparks more question in return.
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