On the origin, evolution and phylogeny of giraffes Giraffa camelopardalis

The origin, phylogeny, and evolution of modern giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) is obscure. We review here the literature and conclude that the proximate ancestors of modern giraffes probably evolved in southern central Europe about 8 million years ago (Mya). These ancestors appear to have arisen from the gelocid ancestral assemblage of 20–25 Mya via the family Palaeomerycidae. From the palaeomerycids arose the Antilocaprinae (Pronghorns) via the subfamily Dromomerycinae, and two subfamilies of giraffids, the Climacoceratidae and Canthumerycidae. The terminal genus of the Climacoceratid line was the now extinct massive giraffid Sivatherium sp. The Canthumerycids gave rise to the okapi and giraffes via the intermediate forms of Giraffokeryx, Palaeotragus sp.(of which the okapi is the extant form), Samotherium sp. and Bohlinia sp. all of which are extinct. Stimulated by climate change, progeny of Bohliniaentered China and north India, evolved into typical Giraffa species and became extinct there about 4 Mya. Similarly, following their preferred habitat, African Giraffa entered Africa via Ethiopia about 7 Mya. Here, seemingly unaffected by the climate changes occurring to the east and causing extinction of its Asian counterparts, Giraffa radiated into several sequential and coeval species culminating with the evolution of G. camelopardalis in East Africa from where it dispersed to its modern range. Fossils of G. camelopardalis appear about 1 Mya in East Africa. The underlying stimulus for Giraffa evolution seems to have been the vegetation change that began about 8 Mya, from the prevalent forest (C3) biome to a savannah/woodland/shrub (C4) biome. Giraffa’s success as a genus is attributed to its great height and unique coat markings. Its height is a consequence of elongation of all seven cervical vertebrae and of the lower more than the upper limb bones. Advantages conferred by its height include protection from predation, increased vigilance, and in males sexual dominance and access to nutrients. Its coat colourings are highly hereditable and provide protection from predation by camouflage, especially in the young. As giraffe are unable to sweat and pant, the patches may also act as thermal windows and may have an important thermoregulatory function.

Last Updated
January 27, 2021
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