If you’re a regular reader you’ll have seen the recent article on those African ‘great bubalus’ depictions and on how they might (or might not) be representations of the large, long-horned bovin bovid Syncerus antiquus. As discussed in that article, S. antiquus – long thought to be a species of Pelorovis – is now regarded as a very close relative of S. caffer, the living Cape buffalo. As usual though, there are quite a few additional things that I wanted to cover, so here’s an attempt to tie up various loose ends [the illustrations above show radically different reconstructions of Pelorovis oldowayensis. Read on for explanation].
So, the type species for Pelorovis is P. oldowayensis, a large, long-faced bovid with horns that are placed well posteriorly. They curve backwards and outwards before curving forwards. It seems to have been similar in proportions to other bovins but for its longer distal limb segments, and of course its antelope-like face and horns are rather different from those of other species too. Compared to other big bovins, P. oldowayensis wasn’t really a ‘giant’ – it was big, with a shoulder height of 1.5 m, but remember that there are living bovines (like the Gaur Bos gaurus) where shoulder height can be 2.2 m. If you need a refresher, Gaurs (and Bantengs B. javanicus) were covered on Tet Zoo in April 2009.
The horns are present in both sexes, with those of assumed females being shorter and more sharply curved than those of assumed males. Unlike those of other bovins, the horns are solid, and they (viz, the horncores) sometimes possess a deep groove that extends along the outside curve (Gentry 1967). Whether this affected the shape of the horn sheaths is unknown.
Today it’s widely accepted that P. oldowayensis is a member of Bovini, and in fact recent work indicates that it’s the closest relative of Bos (Mart铆nez-Navarro et al. 2007). Mart铆nez-Navarro et al. (2007) actually argued that P. turkanensis from the Late Pliocene, P. oldowayensis from the Pleistocene and Bos primigenius (the Aurochs) represent ‘chrono-species’ of the same lineage, in which case Pelorovis should be sunk into Bos [the adjacent figure - from Mart铆nez-Navarro et al. (2007) - shows how various bovin species grouped together following an examination of various anatomical landmarks. Note the presence of a Leptobos-Bison grouping and a Pelorovis-Bos grouping]. This phylogenetic hypothesis has some interesting biogeographical implications, suggesting that Bos originated in Africa before spreading into the Middle East (during the Early Pleistocene) and Europe (during the Middle Pleistocene). Previous scenarios identifed Asian bovin taxa (in particular Leptobos of the Miocene, Pliocene and Pleistocene of Eurasia) as the closest relatives of Bos.
Anyway, the characteristic and unique horn form of P. oldowayensis was initially thought to evidence an affinity with sheep and goats – indeed, you might have noticed that Pelorovis means ‘monster sheep’. Hans Reck, the original describer of the species, “chose the sheep as being least far phylogenetically from Pelorovis, but was aware that the East African animal could have evolved its horn shape in isolation from other known living or fossil sheep” (Gentry 1967, p. 246). Gentry (1967) showed by way of careful and thorough comparison that P. oldowayensis is a member of Bovini and not a close relative of sheep.
The monster sheep that wasn’t
But back when Reck’s idea was regarded as correct, the incredible size of P. oldowayensis relative to other sheep was startling and unexpected. In reconstructions, artists hoped to show how peculiar it might look: my favourite is the one here. Featuring a modern
Mouflon Urial for scale, it essentially makes P. oldowayensis look like a giant, smooth-horned mouflon urial.
The artist had evidently received a brief description but hadn’t been able to look at fossils (or pictures of them). I’m afraid I don’t know the original source of this painting – I’ve only ever seen it in my tattered Figurine Panini Prehistoric Animals sticker book, published 1982.
There’s another peculiar reconstruction out there, this time by Michael R. Long and appearing in Robert Savage’s Mammal Evolution: An Illustrated Guide. The animal looks a bit like a Cape buffalo but has a shaggy pelt, and I always used to wonder whether the artist had been trying to make the animal look goat-like. Long’s mammal reconstructions get used quite a lot – partly because he illustrated species that haven’t been illustrated by others, and partly because the Natural History Museum in London uses various of the illustrations on its web site – but I have to say that I don’t like them much.
Having mentioned Cape buffalo and shaggy coats, it’s worth using this as another opportunity to note how variable S. caffer (sensu lato) really is. We typically think of it as a big, black, short-coated animal of hot grasslands, but don’t forget that there are smaller, longer-coated, reddish/brownish forms that inhabit woodlands and forests. In the big savannah forms (S. c. caffer) the horns are massive, form an enormous boss in the midline, and curve strongly upwards at their tips. In the small forest form (S. c. nanus), the horns are much shorter, don’t form a central boss, and curve backwards with little upwards curvature. The two forms are so different that possible separate species status has been suggested even in recent years (Groves 2000); complicating things is the fact that there are apparent intermediate forms (like S. c. cottoni and S. c. mathewsi) (Grubb 1972) [the adjacent figure - from Grubb (1972) - shows (clockwise from top left) S. c. caffer from Uganda, S. c. caffer from Kenya, S. c. mathewsi, S. c. nanus (at very bottom), and S. c. cottoni (at bottom left)].
Ribbed horns in Syncerus and reversing an opinion, perhaps
There’s one more thing about these bovins that I want to get out of the way. The previous article included some discussion of the fact that various pieces of north African rock art (like the one included here) show large bovins with long, vertically ribbed horns. This animal is the ‘Great bubalus’, long thought to be a representation of S. antiquus.
Because that vertical ribbing reminded me a lot of Asian water buffaloes (Bubalus), I suggested in the previous article that the ‘Great bubalus’ depictions might not be of S. antiquus after all. Rather, could they be representations of wayward Asian water buffaloes instead? I did note that this identification was problematic, since osteological evidence pointing to the presence of Asian water buffaloes in north Africa is, at best, a couple of thousand years old (and hence not really old enough to match the ‘Great bubalus’ depictions: they’re more like 4000 years old).
As you’ll know if you’ve been following the comments attached to the previous article, vertical ribbing is not, however, altogether unheard of in modern S. caffer (regular Tet Zoo commenter Jerzy has been linking to various online photos). Interestingly, some particularly long-horned S. caffer individuals show several vertical ribs along their horns (Grubb 1972). This hints at the possibility both that Syncerus has the potential to produce strongly ‘ribbed’ horns, and that an especially long-horned Syncerus might have particularly elaborate ribbing.
In view of all of this, I’m thinking that the ‘Asian water buffalo in Africa’ hypothesis is looking weaker, and that those long-horned ‘Great bubalus’ animals shown in the rock art are S. antiquus after all. After I published my article I dug out my cherished copy of Alan Turner and Maurico Ant贸n’s excellent Evolving Eden: An Illustrated Guide to the Evolution of the African Large-Mammal Fauna (unfortunately out of sight high on a shelf while I was preparing that first article, and hence out of mind) (Turner & Ant贸n 2004). While Ant贸n illustrated P. oldowayensis with smooth horns, he gave his S. antiquus vertically ribbed horns, just like the ‘Great bubalus’ in the rock art [his illustrations of both species are shown above, with a Cape buffalo next to the P. oldowayensis]. I don’t know, however, whether he was aware of the rock art and hence gave his S. antiquus ribbed horns for this reason, or if he gave it ribbed horns because he wanted to make it look Bubalus-like: Turner & Ant贸n (2004) state “[I]ts similarity to the water buffalo is much greater than [is] its resemblance to the other Pelorovis species” (p. 167). Maybe I should ask him.
We’ll leave Pelorovis and Syncerus alone for now. There are still many other issues concerning African bovid diversity that I’d like to cover. And, look, I’ve gone to some trouble to collect much of the relevant literature…
And for more on other artiodactyls, see…
- Welcome…. to the world of sheep
- Return…. to the world of sheep
- Tet Zoo picture of the day # 23 (entelodonts)
- Deer oh deer, this joke gets worse every time I use it (fallow deer)
- Traumatic anal intercourse with a pig
- It’s such a load of bull
- Duiker, rhymes with biker
- Sable antelopes and the miseducation of youth
- Giant killer pigs from hell (more on entelodonts)
- The plasticity of deer
- Over 400 new mammal species have been named since 1993
- Stuffed megamammal week, day 1: Khama
- Stuffed megamammal week, day 2: Eland
- Great Asian cattle
- Dromomerycids: discuss
- A close-up look at a Hairy babirusa (includes links to many other babirusa articles)
- A new angle for hippos (includes links to other hippo articles)
- A ‘consensus cladogram’ for artiodactyls
- Pronghorn, “designed by committee” (pronghorns part I)
- Release the fossil pronghorns!! (pronghorns part II)
- The many magnificent subspecies of Argali
- The ‘Great bubalus’ in ancient African rock art
Refs – –
Gentry, A. W. (1967). Pelorovis oldowayensis Reck, an extinct bovid from East Africa. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History), Geology, 14, 245-299.
Groves, C. P. 2000. What are the elephants of west Africa? Elephant 2, 7-8.
Grubb, P. 1972. Variation and incipient speciation in the African buffalo. Zeitschrift f眉r S盲ugetierkunde 37, 121-144.
Mart铆nez-Navarro, B., P茅rez-Claros, J. A., Palombo, M. R., Rook, L. & Palmqvist, P. 2007. The Olduvai buffalo Pelorovis and the origin of Bos. Quaternary Research 68, 220-226.
Turner, A. & Ant贸n, M. 2004. Evolving Eden: An Illustrated Guide to the Evolution of the African Large-Mammal Fauna. Columbia University Press, New York.