“Wednesday” Wonders: Sivatherium

18 06 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes!

I apoligize for the tardiness of this entry: I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather of late. In consequence, this ‘Wednesday Wonder’ will be slightly shorter than normal, as I haven’t been able to accumulate as much information concerning this week’s creature as I generally have for previous animals.

Often in the course of a group’s evolution, creatures are produced which appear to be completely misidentified as some of its members. After all, who would have believed that modern crocodilians evolved from small, greyhound-like predators were it not for the findings of comparative anatomy which binds them together? Frequently, the cause of  this disbelief resides in the unfortunate fact that many once diverse and successful groups have been reduced to a few scattered species in the modern world. This brings us to Sivatherium, a giraffid which for all the world looked (and probably behaved) like a moose.

Sivatherium in all its moose-like glory.

Sivatherium in all its moose-like glory.

Giraffids are ruminants and members of the infraorder Pecora along with deer, musk deer, pronghorns, cattle, goats, sheep, and antelopes. RJG Savage and MR Long write in their compendium “Mammal Evolution: An Illustrated Guide” that “The first pecorans appear in the eary Miocene of Europe and Africa and are difficult to assign to family status, hence the origin of the three main lineages (giraffes, deer and cattle) remains obscure.” The earliest creature which demonstrates strong giraffoid affinities is Climacoceras sp. from the Miocene of Kenya. It’s relations are suggested by its well-developed branch-like ossicones. The giraffids flourished during the Miocene and Pleistocene, their range extending through much of the Old World and most notably including central to northern Africa and most of India.

Standing with a shoulder height of 2.2 meters, Sivatheriumwas enormous by giraffid standards.  A resident of modern day India, it’s sizeable proportions and very recent age qualify it as a member of the Pleistocene megafauna. In “The Evolution Of Artiodactyls” (edited by Don Prothero), Nikos Solounias writes:

Sivatheriumwas… similar to the okapi, but it was a very large ruminant. With respect to diet, the giraffe is a browser, and the okapi may be either a browser or a fruit browser. The extinct taxa [Samotherium, Palaeotragus, and Sivatherium] were mostly browsers or mixed feeders but rarely grazers.”

Sivatherium skeletal reconstruction. Note the browsing dentition.

Sivatherium skeletal reconstruction.

In “The Ecology Of Browsing and Grazing”, Iain Gordon and Herbert Prins note of Sivatherium that the creature’s “Cheek teeth were generally more hypsodontthan giraffines, indicative of a more mixed-feeding type of diet.” While this is likely true and Sivatherium almost certainly grazed on occasion, much of its anatomy shows a large bias towards the browsing behaviors traditional in  its family. It probably sported a short proboscis-like upper lip, which added yet another similarity to a modern moose and likewise would have assisted it in gathering branches and leaves. It’s also possible that Sivatherium possessed a long, prehensile tongue as modern giraffids do and which would have presumably been similarly dark purple in coloration to avoid the effects of sunburn.

It occurs to me that I’ve proclaimed how moose-like Sivatherium was several times without mentioning the most obvious trait warranting of this description: it’s enormous posterior ossicones. Savage and Long report that “This gigantic giraffid[‘s] skull (length 70 cm) had in male specimens a conical pair of ossicones above the orbits and a large palmate [(leaf-shaped)] pair behind the parietal bones.” The creature’s almost disproportionately-large and heavy head would have been supported in life by its fairly strong forelimbs which were comparatively shorter than those of a moose but comparable to an okapi’s.

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all.




9 responses

19 06 2009
Brian Beatty

Nikos is in China right now, studying some fossils of giraffes similar to Sivatherium, from what he told me. Although it might be a little while from now to allow for him to get back to NYCOM, I’ll try to get him to leave a comment here too.
As for me, this is one of my favorite fossil ruminants, too. It’s unfortunate, however, how much attention it gets in comparison with other fossil artiodactyls that have better, yet largely unstudied, fossil records.
Thanks for keeping artiodactyls in the spotlight!

6 08 2009
V. T. Ingole

After reading your article we would like to inform you that we have spotted rock shelter paintings of sivatherium in two different places. we woould like to communicate with you in details provided you are interested. kindly email your consent by emailing us.
v t ingole

6 08 2009

I’d be very interested to learn more about these primitive reconstructions. By all means, send me some info!!

19 06 2009

I’m always happy to keep such an interesting group in the foreground, Brian!

As for Sivatherium, I quite like it as well. However, one of the primary reasons that I featured it rather than another giraffid was due to the fact that there’s comparatively little information available about other genera. As for other artiodactyls, I’m planning on posting about a few in the near future, assuming that a) nobody else has covered them in-depth and b) I can locate a substantial amount of data concerning them.

Thanks for your reply,


P.S.: I’d quite like to hear from Nikos, thanks for offering to get us in touch!

22 06 2009
Zach Miller

From what I’ve read, Sivatherium may have survived until fairly recently–I believe there’s at least one cave painting that depicts what looks like Sivatherium, but I’m not positive…

20 08 2009
V T Ingole

The reconstructed picture of sivatherium as shown here does not match with the rockshelter paintings as well as the reconstrect animal by Geological Survey of India.
I would like to know the address of the rock shelter where the painting of sivatherium was sighted.

24 06 2009

Hey, Zach!

I apologize for the tardiness of this reply, for I’ve been out in the field quite frequently of late. I too have heard of man-made artistic reconstructions of Sivatherium (Savage and Long mention them in their book) in the form of sculptures and paintings, however, I’ve been unable to locate any photographs of them.

16 12 2009
Week Of Wonders: Coryphodon « The Theatrical Tanystropheus

[…] we could have possibly imagined. Last spring, I utilized this column to feature the strange case of Sivathertium: a moderately-large giraffid which, according to most any initial inspection, resembled a moose […]

28 05 2010
Tamara Henson

When i was in college I remember reading in a book that the qilin (dragon horse) of China was based on Sivatherium. The source noted that early qilin images had sivathere-like horns. In other words a two horns, each of which had a small forward “prong” and a backwards pointing palmate “antler”. Later images were confused with the zhi (chinese unicorn) creating the modern ki-lin image which is basically a qilin with a single horn.

This always made me wonder about Sivatherium’s coloring as oriental art depicts it as either golden or bluish with white spots (though later art turned the spots into scales). Are any markings preserved with the cave drawings?

By the way the college no longer has the book in question (I spent all day looking for it) and I lost my notes. It was not “Out of Noah’s Ark”, “Willy Leys Exotic Zoology”, or “Mermaids & Mastodons”, but it was similar to those books in format. If anyone has any idea which book it was (it was published sometime between 1940-1970, I think) I would greatly appreciate it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: