Giraffes are strange beasts. Whether we're talking about the charismatic, long-necked forms strutting over the savanna or the secretive, forest-dwelling okapi, even a glance sets them apart from other mammals. The fossil forms were just as weird. Some were slender. Some were bulky and bore flashy ossicones on their skulls. And now a new fossil species is adding context to the deep history of these remarkable mammals.

Known from a skull and partial skeleton found in the roughly 9 million year old rock of Spain, the new species is called Decennatherium rex. This was a big beast. Even though this ancient giraffe didn't have a particularly long neck, paleontologist María Ríos and colleagues reconstruct D. rex as over six feet high at the shoulder, carrying its head high enough that it could easily look down on you.

But what makes D. rex so special isn't its size, but its relationship to other fossil giraffes. Ríos and coauthors found that this hefty herbivore is a branch on the giraffe family tree near the origin of two major extinct subgroups - the sivatheres and the samotheres. These were stocky giraffes with four ossicones, some of which looked like giraffes trying to do an impression of the moose. And given that D. rex extends the range of these groups back to about 9 million years ago, Ríos and colleagues point out, it helps make this broader family of sivatheres and samotheres a long-lived and successful family, despite presently being extinct. Not bad for a ruminant that's been dead since the Miocene.

The skeleton of Decennatherium rex. Credit: Ríos et al 2017

Fossil Facts

Name: Decennatherium rex

Meaning: Decennatherium is a previously-established genus of giraffid, and the new species name rex is meant to signify that this large animal was the king of the Miocene Iberian giraffids.

Age: Miocene, about 9 million years old.

Where in the world?: Cerro de los Batallones, Spain.

What sort of organism?: A giraffid.

How much of the organism’s is known?: A skull and partial skeleton.


Ríos, M., Sánchez, I., Morales, J. 2017. A new giraffid (Mammalia, Ruminantia, Pecora) from the late Miocene of Spain, and the evolution of the sivathere-samothere lineage. PLOS ONE. doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0185378

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