All giraffes are not created the same.
A new study finds that instead of just one species (and several subspecies) of the long-necked animal, there are four, with researchers saying that the genetic differences among the four kinds are similar to the differences between polar and brown bears.
"We were extremely surprised, because the morphological and coat pattern differences between giraffe are limited," said Axel Janke, a geneticist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center and Goethe University in Germany. Giraffes are also assumed to have similar ecological requirements across their range, he added, "but no one really knows, because this megafauna has been largely overlooked by science."
Giraffes, like many wild animals in Africa, are facing a steep decline, dropping from an estimated 150,000 to 100,000 over the last three decades.
The discovery of the different species could help the giraffe.
"With now four distinct species, the conservation status of each of these can be better defined and in turn added to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List (of threatened species)," Julian Fennessy of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation in Namibia says. "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.”
For the study, researchers took skin biopsies from 190 giraffes from different regions of Africa and made sure to get samples from all nine previously known subspecies.
What they found were four “highly distinct” types of giraffe, which they say should be recognized as distinct species, including southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa), Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi), reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata) and northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis).
"As an example," Fennessyadds, "northern giraffe number less than 4,750 in the wild, and reticulated giraffe number less than 8,700 individuals -- as distinct species, it makes them some of the most endangered large mammals in the world."
The findings were published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology.