A long time ago, but not very far away at all, there lived a very strange beast. This ancient mammal’s headgear was so weird, in fact, that paleontologists have named it in honor of Padmé Amidala’s extravagant hairstyles in Star Wars Episode I.
The creature’s full name is Xenokeryx amidalae. Described by Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales-CSIC paleontologist Israel Sánchez and colleagues, it was a deer-sized herbivore that roamed Spain during the Miocene period, over 16 million years ago. But this mammal wasn’t quite like anything alive today.
A large part of what allowed Sánchez and coauthors to identify the mammal as something new was the arrangement of its ornaments. Xenokeryx sported a protrusion jutting above each eye and a two-pronged flange jutting from the back of its head (and this adornment, in particular, is what led the scientists to make the Star Wars connection). These weren’t antlers like deer have or horns as seen an antelope, though. The facial decorations of Xenokeryx would have been covered in fur, and the paleontologists suspect this on the basis of who their fossil mammal was related to.
Xenokeryx belonged to a group of mammals called palaeomerycids. That’s hardly a household name, and they’ve long been a point of paleontological contention. Being that they’re totally extinct and have a fossil record that leaves something to be desired, exactly where the fit in the hoofed-mammal family tree has been debated since their bones were pulled from the ground. Some experts have thought of them as close to deer while others have put them near giraffes.
The new skull material of Xenokeryx resolves the issue. It and its strange-skulled relatives were close cousins with giraffes, having split apart from a last common ancestor some 30 million years ago. So because giraffes have fuzzy skin covering their bumps – called ossicones – rather than horn, it’s likely Xenokeryx did too. And the old bones offer more resolution to the fossil mammal family tree. For sci-fi fans, this is the first good thing to come out of The Phantom Menace in 16 years. Yeah, I said it.
IMAGE: Israel M. Sánchez/Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace poster