Not Your Average Deer

A new fossil species helps resolve the evolutionary relationships of an extinct group of ruminants.

Dec 4, 2015
Karen Zusi

ISRAEL M. SÁNCHEZPalaeomerycids, ancient ruminant animals with three horns, roamed across Eurasia during the middle Miocene Epoch 11-16 million years ago. This week (December 2), researchers from the National Museum of Natural History in Spain published their description of a new palaeomerycid, Xenokeryx amidalae, in PLOS ONE and analyzed a phylogeny for the group that places it with modern giraffes.

The new species is named for the Star Wars character Queen Amidala. Its scientific name means “strange horn of Amidala,” a reference to the largest horn on males, which was “extremely similar to one of the hairstyles that Amidala shows off in Star Wars Episode I when she is the queen of her home planet Naboo,” study coauthor and diehard Star Wars fan Israel Sánchez told Reuters.

X. amidalae was roughly the size of a deer, based on fossils—likely from one adult and two juveniles, according to the report—studied by Sánchez and his colleagues. The specimens were found on Spain’s Iberian Peninsula. Palaeomerycid males generally displayed horns on their head and fang-like upper canine teeth; females were less ornamented, with no horns or fangs. Based on the physical characteristics of the X. amidalae, including their skulls, teeth, and feet, along with previously published palaeomerycid fossil descriptions and specimens at Spain’s National Museum of Natural History and other museum collections, the research group classified palaeomerycids with today’s giraffes in the clade Giraffomorpha.

The new phylogeny contradicts some previous work suggesting that the palaeomerycids were close relatives of North America’s extinct dromomerycids—another ruminant distantly related to deer.