Up until now, giraffes have been recognised by the world as a single species, with nine subspecies occurring throughout the African continent. Researchers, however, have just discovered that there are in fact four different species of giraffe. Clearly, the world’s tallest herbivore has somehow slipped under the radar of the scientific community until now.
Giraffes, all previously known as Giraffa camelopardalis, will now be divided into four distinct species:
Reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata)
Southern giraffe (G. giraffa) – of which the Angolan and South African giraffes are subspecies
Northern giraffe (G.camelopardalis) – of which the Kordofan, Nubian and West African giraffes are subspecies
Masai giraffe (G.tippelskirchi)
Conservation was the catalyst for this genetic research with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation approaching a team of geneticists to carry out analysis. The foundation wanted to better understand genetic differences between populations. Furthermore, what affects may ensue, should animals from different subspecies be mixed together.
This initial study examined mitochondrial DNA. This is useful for population genetics. It can be easily isolated and contains lots of known variants that can track relatedness. However, mitochondrial DNA is not part of the code that builds an animal. Dr Axel Janke, an evolutionary biologist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center, in Germany decided to also examine and compare nuclear DNA.
Janke says he was initially hesitant to name the giraffes as separate species, but the data show it’s “absolutely justified.”
Time to re-think giraffe conservation
The northern giraffe, which has three subspecies, has a combined population of fewer than 5,000 animals. Many live in unstable areas in central Africa, and in the Democratic Republic of the Cong. The Kordofan subspecies is being hunted for its tail, which is considered a status symbol.
The reticulated giraffe has one of the most rapid declines, with an 80 percent drop in recent decades because of habitat loss and poaching.
Dr Janke points out that the IUCN lists the giraffe as a species of least concern. However, now that the population of roughly 90,000 is divided into four subsets—including two with fewer than 10,000 animals each—a new conservation status may be warranted.