Scientists have discovered that there are actually four giraffe species. Previously, it was believed that there was only one species of giraffe with a number of subspecies. The findings have important implications for giraffe conservation and research. The details are in a paper that was just published in the journal Current Biology.
There are few differences in appearance between giraffe subspecies. All giraffes can interbreed and share similar behaviors and diets. This has led scientists to classify the different giraffe populations as subspecies, not separate species.
A research team collected DNA samples from the skin biopsies of 190 giraffes. The data was collected from giraffes throughout Africa and each recognized subspecies was included in the analysis. The team conducted nuclear and mitochondrial gene analyses to determine the relatedness of the different populations.
The researchers were surprised to see that there were four genetically distinct giraffe species. The four discovered species are the southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa), Masai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi), reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata), and the northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis). The northern giraffe species includes the Nubian giraffe (G. c. camelopardalis), a rare subspecies. The four species don’t appear to mate with each other at all in the wild, another surprise to the researchers.
Wild giraffe populations have already been declining, with less than 100,000 individuals left globally. This prompted the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources to propose an update to the giraffe’s place on the IUCN Red List. With this new species information, a reassessment is even more important. There are less than 4,750 northern giraffes in the wild, for example, meaning that the species is critically endangered. Based on the team’s estimates, there are also less than 8,700 reticulated giraffes left. The research team hopes that their study will bring more focus to giraffe research and conservation. They note that giraffes have been understudied compared to other African mammals.
Fennessy et al. Multi-locus Analyses Reveal Four Giraffe Species Instead of One. Current Biology (2016).