Colours of Wildlife: Birgerbohlinia

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Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Birgerbohlinia by Willem

More prehistory, if you can handle it. Here I give you Birgerbohlinia schaubi, an extinct giraffe. If you've been following this column, you'll have encountered several other kinds of prehistoric giraffes already. The group is fascinating for how diverse it was in the past, and for showing how a once-flourishing family can be reduced over time to just a handful of remnants. Today, there are only two kinds of giraffe left: the regular long-necked kind, and the short-necked, forest-living okapi. The two look very different, and yet when you examine their body constructions and bones, it's clear they're each other's closest family.

Although I count the long-necked giraffes above as just a single 'kind', you may be aware that recently there have been calls to split them into several species. Giraffes in the wild consist of several different forms based on the precise pattern of spots and blotches they're decorated with. On one end there are the reticulated giraffes with their extremely neat, straight white lines separating the bright orange-brown patches, and on the other extreme there's the Masai giraffe with its dark, intricate star-shaped blotches, and in between these there are several other kinds of coat blotching. Recognising each of these forms as a full species will help us to properly conserve the full genetic diversity of the living giraffes. And yet, they're all very similar, while the prehistoric giraffes included types that were wildly different. But even they were clearly giraffes, on the strength of skeletal features they all shared.

Another funny thing about giraffes is that the family, today confined to the continent of Africa, used to occur far more widely. It's not clear where giraffes originated, since there are very primitive types and possible giraffe relatives known from Africa as well as Eurasia. They certainly flourished for long in Asia and Europe. In fact, on Samos, a smallish Greek island, about seven or eight different kinds of giraffe have been found! While in Africa, their fossils have been quite scarce, and apart from the living species, only a handful of others have been found so far. But it's likely that there existed more than we know about.

So this brings us to Birgerbohlinia schaubi. I can't find a good explanation for its scientific name, except that it likely names this giraffid for three different people, one named Birger, one named Bohl, and one named Schaub. Which tells us very little about the thing itself! First of all, Birgerbohlinia was one of those European giraffes alluded to above. Its fossils were found in Spain, dating back to the Miocene. The info I can get about the genus is that it existed from about 16 to a bit over 5 million years ago, which is a good, long stretch. The Miocene period was just about the heyday for the mammals. Perhaps twice as many species of large mammals existed then compared to now. These included some very modern types, as well as some primitive holdovers that still persisted for a bit. The global climate was warm, there was no hint of ice ages yet. Much of Europe had a landscape and vegetation similar to present-day tropical and subtropical Africa. Where Birgerbohlinia was found, Miocene Spain, the environment was likely well-developed woodland or savannah, inhabited by the giraffids as well as antelopes, giant pigs, elephant-like things, and a variety of large predators.

Among these, Birgerbohlinia was one of the larger herbivores. It was a tad bigger than an Okapi, but smaller and shorter than a modern giraffe. Its legs and neck were just moderately lengthened. It was likely a browser on trees and shrubs. Its main claim to fame was its head adornments. These are called ossicones. They're bony outgrowths of the skull, which in living giraffes are covered in skin and hair, apart from the tips, which tend to rub bare in adult giraffes, especially bulls, exposing the bone. Birgerbohlinia had four such ossicones, two in front and two behind, and they were much longer than those of living giraffes. The front ones pointed upward and a bit outward, while the rear ones were long and curved outward and backward. These ossicones might have been used for display, defense, or feeding. Birgerbohlinia could have used them to break and pull leafy branches from trees, or for stripping tasty, nutritious bark. Facing sideways, the long rear ossicones could have been used in side-to-side shoving-and-bashing matches between males, competing for females, dominance and territory.

There were several independent 'radiations' of related giraffe species in the past. They're interesting, for certain trends among the giraffes evolved more than once, such as long-necked, long-legged species as well as heavier, more ox-like species. Birgerbohlinia belonged to a group which included small and slender types like Injanatherium, as well as large giraffe-like types such as Bohlinia attica, while it was stouter and more ox-like itself. I hope to soon show you more of these. It is possible that the modern long-necked giraffe evolved from Bohlinia attica or something close to it. But Birgerbohlinia represented a dead-end line, dying out without leaving any descendants.

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