Conservation news

There are four species of giraffes, not one: new study

  • The study groups giraffes into four species: southern giraffe, Masai giraffe, reticulated giraffe, and northern giraffe.
  • Some giraffe species are at immediate risk of extinction: there are fewer than 4,750 northern giraffes left in the wild, for example, and less than 8,700 individual reticulated giraffes.
  • Giraffes have been largely overlooked by science, researchers say, but the authors hope that the study’s findings will help refocus attention on giraffes.

Giraffes are not one species, but four different ones, a new study has found.

And this revelation could change the way these long-necked mammals are protected, researchers write in a new study published in Current Biology.

Traditionally, scientists have classified all giraffes as a single species Giraffa camelopardalis, split into some 11 subspecies based on their coat markings and geographical distribution. But now, by analyzing genetic data obtained from skin biopsies of 190 giraffes across Africa, researchers have found that all the recognized subspecies belong to four distinct groups, which do not mate in the wild.

“We were extremely surprised, because the morphological and coat pattern differences between giraffe are limited,” Axel Janke, a geneticist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre and Goethe University in Germany, said in a statement.

A new study has found that there may be four distinct species of giraffes that do not interbreed in the wild. Photo by Udayan Dasgupta.

Based on their results, Janke and his colleagues suggest grouping the giraffes into four species: the southern giraffe (G. giraffa), which includes two subspecies — the Angolan giraffe and South African giraffe found in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe; the Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi), comprising of the Thornicroft’s giraffe subspecies found mainly in Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia; the reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata) found in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia; as well as the northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis), found in eastern and central parts of Africa.

“The conservation implications are obvious,” the authors write in the study, since giraffe numbers are dwindling across Africa, mainly due to destruction of their habitat and poaching for their meat. In fact, giraffe numbers have plummeted by 40 percent in the last 15 per years, declining from more than 140,000 in the late 1990s to fewer than 80,000 today, according to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.

Some giraffe species are at immediate risk of extinction. There are fewer than 4,750 northern giraffes left in the wild, for example, and less than 8,700 individual reticulated giraffes.

“As distinct species, it makes them some of the most endangered large mammals in the world and require doubling of protection efforts to secure these populations,” lead author Julian Fennessy of Giraffe Conservation Foundation, said in the statement.

Some giraffe species have fewer than 10,000 individuals. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Giraffes have been largely overlooked by science, researchers say, compared to some of the more charismatic African mammals such as elephants, rhinos and lions. Currently listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, the authors hope that the study’s findings will help refocus attention on giraffes.

“With now four distinct species, the conservation status of each of these can be better defined and in turn hopefully added to the IUCN Red List in time.” Fennessy said. “Working collaboratively with African governments, the continued support of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and partners can highlight the importance of each of these dwindling species, and hopefully kick start targeted conservation efforts and internal donor support for their increased protection.”

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