A “strange beast” was one of many that once lived over 15 million years ago in China. But this one is rewriting one of the stories most commonly used to illustrate Darwinian evolution. Its name also reflects an intriguing story about an ancient mythological creature.
In school, students learn that giraffes evolved long necks to reach the leaves on tall trees, but the newly-described strange beast, a bizarre prehistoric giraffe, adds a new leaf to the story. This creature had a thick short neck and a skull designed to butt heads with more force than dinosaurs and twice that of muskoxen, which butt heads at 25 miles per hour. To date, it’s the “most-optimized head-bashing gear yet discovered,” ever in history, according to the New York Times.
Ancient Giraffe Ancestor
A new study determined the fossil is one of the earliest giraffe ancestors discovered in 1996 in northwestern China.
“Evolution of these elongated necks, the authors stated in the paper, might have been for fighting and not just to reach up to gain access to foliage,” writes Scientific American.
A paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, Jin Meng, discovered the fossil in a rock outcrop in a rocky outcrop in the Junggar Basin. After seeing that it was a mammalian skull with an oddly-flattened top, he and his colleagues called it “strange beast.”
After research, the scientist named the animal Discokeryx xiezhi. The first word translates to Round-plated horn, while Xiezhi comes from a mythical one-horned creature from Chinese legends (More on that strange beast later).
Possibly, the endangered Okapi, a cousin of modern giraffes which lives in forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo, may bear a resemblance to Discokeryx. They are known as “forest giraffes,” and appear like a cross between a zebra and a deer.
Video by Earth Titan:
Strange Beast Head-Butting Champion of the World
While giraffes fight by throwing their heads and necks sideways (called “necking”), Discokeryx fought straight on like mountain sheep. Presumably, the males battled over females like giraffes today. However, they have small horns called ossicones, whereas their ancient relative had a battle helmet.
The skull featured a bony place almost an inch thick. Also, the neck vertebrae were thickened to withstand extreme impacts and had more surface area where they contacted each other and the base of the skull.
“D. xiezhi was not that large, perhaps the size of a big sheep, but Meng and his colleagues found that the species’ head and neck were perhaps some of the strongest ever possessed by a mammal—and maybe any earlier creature, too. The researchers characterized D. xiezhi as having “the most complicated head-neck joints in mammals known to date.”
Possibly, it “bested the dinosaurs,” in withstanding head-butting force, including Pachycephalosaurus, the “thick-headed lizard.”
Evolution of the Giraffe’s Long Neck
Although the story of the giraffe’s long neck is a staple in textbooks, Discokeryx adds new context relating to combat and the environment.
“Evolution of these elongated necks, the authors stated in the paper, might have been for fighting and not just to reach up to gain access to foliage,” writes Rachel Nuwer.
According to Science, the giraffe relative’s headgear was an “amazing sexual weapon,” evolved for getting mates instead of leaves.
“‘It’s a cool story about an amazing sexual weapon,’ says Ted Stankowich, an evolutionary ecologist at California State University, Long Beach, who was not involved with the work.”
So the primary evolutionary driver wasn’t necessarily food but competition for mates. Instead, reaching leaves in trees was more of a “fortuitous side benefit.”
Bowling Over Charles Darwin
On the other hand, Advait Jukar, a Yale University paleobiologist, notes that male and female giraffes have long necks, so the evolutionary drivers which led to giraffes’ long necks today aren’t settled. Similarly, both males and females develop two distinct, hair-covered horns called ossicones. Interestingly, it is known that the male giraffe’s neck grows bigger with age, but not the female’s.
So, the question of what led to the giraffes we see today is a complex one. According to Nature, research indicates tall giraffes aren’t more likely to survive drought and tend to eat at lower levels. What’s more, their long necks require high blood pressure and management to avoid fainting or stroke.
“I wish Charles Darwin were alive for this discussion. He’d be bowled over,” said Rob Simmons, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Cape Town who was not involved with the work.
Strange Beast, Strange Habits
Making matters more complex, after studying the Discokeryx fossil, the scientists determined another unusual trait besides its helmeted skull. Analysis of isotopes in its tooth enamel suggested the strange beast foraged for food in the open, unlike other herbivores in the area which stayed in the forests. Today’s giraffes browse for food in a similar habitat.
If we look at animals that continue to butt heads today, like muskoxen, they haven’t evolved long necks. But the giraffes and giraffoids took it to extremes, both for combat and as the world’s tallest mammals, up to 20 feet tall.
Also, giraffes have a 21-inch-long black, blue or purple tongue with a pink base to help them grab leaves from spiky thorns. Nobody really knows why, but the pigment may help prevent sunburn.
Great video by Science Magazine:
Giraffoids and Other Strange Beasts
Going back to Discokeryx xiezhi, Science writes:
“The researchers named the fossil Discokeryx xiezhi, after a Chinese legendary horned creature that had the power to distinguish right from wrong.”
In appearance, the Xiezhi doesn’t resemble Discokeryx xiezhi much but is more like a dragon with one horn, a unicorn. According to Wikipedia, it looks like “an ox or goat, with thick dark fur covering its body, bright eyes, and a single long horn on its forehead.”
The Xiezhi is similar to another hybrid creature from Chinese mythology, the Qilin or “Chinese Unicorn,” a benevolent creature of good luck. During the Ming Dynasty, Admiral Zheng He brought a pair of giraffes on the “Treasure Fleet” from Africa. Then, they presented the animals to Emperor Yongle as Qilin, symbols of peace and greatness.
Video by National Museums Scotland:
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Symbols of Justice and Law
As to the legend, the Xiezhi or Xie Zhi symbolized justice and would ram corrupt officials with its horn and devour them.
“King Xuan of Qi once asked his minister Ai Zi about the Xiezhi. The sage answered that it was a sacred animal kept in the Imperial Court in ancient times. When it saw a corrupt official, it pierced him with its horn and devoured [him.] “If such animal lived today,” he added, “it would not need to go hungry.”
Judges and Strange Beasts
Gao Yao, the first Judge in Chinese history under Emperor Shun of the Neolithic Period (2255-2205 BC), was said to have a Xiezhi that could determine guilt or innocence. Judges wore a xiezhi guan (hat) during several periods.
“The creature’s ability lies in distinguishing truth from lies and good from evil. It can point its horn to guilty or evil people as well as determine who started a fight and who was in the wrong. The beast’s violent actions include ramming into a person, eating a person guilty of misdoing, or killing them,” writes Virmuze.
Nevertheless, the strange beast was also said to eat grass. Today, the Xiezhi remains a symbol found on gavels, law buildings, and police stations.
The Silveratherium, a Monstrous Giraffoid
Giraffes are strange-looking creatures. To the Romans, giraffes were called cameleopard because they thought they looked like a hybrid beast, part camel, part leopard.
During the Miocene, from 23 to 5 million years ago, there were many giraffoids with bizarre appearances. Some had bony structures on their heads like the Sivatherium or “Shiva’s Beast,” which may have lived up to 8,000 years ago. During the 19th century, books and lectures about “prehistoric monsters” commonly included the Silvatherium.
National Geographic describes it as a “mashup of deer, ox, giraffe, and other parts.”
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A Biblical Dragon
According to some cryptozoologists, the Silvatherium could have been the Mushussu Dragon depicted on the Ishtar Gate in Babylon and the story of Bel and the Dragon in the apocryphal Bible. The chief god of Babylon, Marduk, or Bel (Lord), was said to have a sacred dragon servant. During the time of King Hammurabi (1795 to 1750 BCE), the code of laws that became one of the earliest and most complete written legal codes was said to be dictated by Marduk.
In Greece, Marduk is associated with Zeus and in Rome with Jupiter. The Ishtar Gate also featured bulls of the weather god Adad and lions of the Goddess Ishtar, to whom the gate to the city was dedicated.
Curiously, the Xiezhi, Marduk, and his strange beast have a connection with ancient stories of upholding justice and the law.
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Featured image: Screenshot via YouTube/Science with Xiezhi via Wikimedia Commons