The modern giraffe is the tallest animal alive with an average height of 15-18 feet. Modern giraffes have one of the most extreme evolutionary adaptations; their long necks! But how did giraffes look before they evolved into what we see today? Their evolutionary history dates back to over 50 million years ago. The largest ever giraffe was 2,760 lbs and had antlers. Along their evolutionary line is one of the largest known ruminants of all time, the Sivatherium. While this species may not have modern giraffes beat in height, they definitely have them beat in weight. Let’s look at the ancient Sivatherium, and what we know about this large giraffe animal.
Discovery of the Sivatherium
The first fossils of the Sivatherium were discovered in 1836 during an expedition in India by Hugh Falconer and Proby Thomas Cautley. The fossil remains first discovered was an almost perfectly intact head. The most distinctive feature of this animal is its skull. When found, the large size of the head was described as almost as large as the elephant skulls found in the area. Two large horns emerged from their brow.
Before scientists came to the conclusion that the Sivatherium was once a species of giraffe, it was believed to be some sort of combination of deer, ox, and giraffe. It was even believed, due to the structure of the nasal cavity, that this species had some sort of small trunk. After more skulls had been discovered, a second pair of horns on the back of the skull was found. Due to this finding, naturalists at first believed Sivatherium was an antelope. However, after closer inspection of these horns and other features naturalists came to the conclusion it was more closely resembling a giraffe.
There were many years of debating the appearance and evolutionary line of Sivatherium. Scientists use the fossils currently known to estimate this species’ size and appearance. With help from the structure of modern giraffes and okapi, we can see what this species would have looked like.
This species didn’t have necks even close to as long as modern giraffes, though they were still relatively long and thick. Their necks needed to have a large muscle mass to support their large heads. Because of the nasal cavity, the Sivatherium was believed to have had a trunk. While that has been disproven, the facial structure suggests their nose and mouth were similar to that of a moose. This species had teeth that were brachydont as well as higher hypsodonty teeth.
The Sivatherium was approximately 9 feet tall and 13 feet long with a large bulky body and thin legs much like current giraffes. At first, it was assumed these mammals would have been about 900-1100 lbs, but current research shows they most likely had an estimated body mass of around 2,700-3,000 lbs. This weight is assumed to be an underestimate, as it doesn’t account for the large horns of the males.
Diet and Habitat of the Sivatherium
When the first skulls of the Sivatherium were found it was almost entirely intact including the teeth. With the knowledge of its lineage and hypsodont teeth, we know these ancient giraffes were herbivores. Their large size and long neck allowed them to eat leaves from high branches. They would also bend down to eat grass and herbs.
This species is known to have lived in Eurasia, India, and Africa. In Africa, they originated during the Late Miocene and survived through the late Early Pleistocene. Over the years, many fossils have been discovered in the Jammu and the Shivalik Hills of India, the Himalayas as well as Ethiopia, Chad, Uganda, and Morocco.
Extinction of the Sivatherium
Currently, there is still debate in the scientific community about when Sivatherium went extinct. From current fossil findings, it is known that they lived until at least 1 million years ago. However, cave paintings on rocks in the Sahara Desert of animals closely depicting the Sivatherium suggest that humans once hunted and possibly even worshiped these animals. It is estimated they became extinct around 10,000 years ago during the close of the last Ice Age.
The exact reason for the extinction is unknown, but scientists assume extinction came from environmental changes that restricted this species’ territory and food.
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