The recently uncovered fossil of an early giraffe ancestor exhibits some noticeable differences from its modern giraffe descendants. It's several feet shorter, roamed Europe instead of Africa, and sports four horns on its head instead of two. As The New York Times reports, the discovery, outlined in a recent study in the journal PLOS One, sheds new light on the evolutionary history of the long-necked mammals.

The fossil belongs to a newly discovered species of extinct giraffe dubbed Decennatherium rex. It was excavated near Madrid, Spain along with the remains of three other specimens of the same animal, but the other fossils don't compare to the near-complete condition of the first. The creatures lived in the area 9 million years ago, moving the timeline of giraffids' presence in Europe further back than experts previously thought.

The ancient species stood 9 feet tall, making it shorter than today's giraffes. While D. rex lacked the modern giraffe's distinctive towering neck, paleontologists were able to classify it as a member of the same family by looking for its double-lobed canine teeth and the bony protrusions on its head called ossicones. Giraffes and okapis are the only remaining members of their family (though the giraffes we think of as one species may actually consist of four), and they both have one set of two ossicones that rise straight from the top of the skull.

In addition to the two small horns at the front of its head, D. rex also appears to have had a second set. This feature differed in females and males: In the female D. rex, ossicones grew to be about 2 inches, while in males their second set could reach up to 16 inches. Though they varied in size, the fact that ossicones appeared in both sexes suggests that they didn't just evolve as a way for males to compete for mates.

The details of giraffe evolution, like how the species developed its elongated neck, are mysteries scientists are just starting to unravel. This most recent discovery adds another important link in the long history of the Giraffidae family.

[h/t The New York Times]

All images courtesy of María Ríos et al. in PLOS One