Why Are We Only Discovering 4 Species of Giraffe in Africa NOW?

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I find it fascinating that it had always been thought that there was only one species of Giraffe in Africa and then seemingly overnight we suddenly had four different species. This was huge news for Giraffe lovers across the world, thanks to science, because gaining new species of animals does not happen all that often (let alone an extra three in one go). I decided to do a little bit of research and see what this actually means and why are we only discovering this now.

On the 8th of September 2016, a study on the genetic differences in Giraffe across Africa was published in the journal Current Biology. It was co-authored by Axel Jancke, an evolutionary biologist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center in Germany, and Dr. Julian Fennessy of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation Previously, the single species of Giraffe was divided into nine different sub-species depending on their differing coat patterns and the regions they occurred in, but on closer DNA inspection and a look at their genetic markers the study suggested that there was actually enough genetic variation to separate them into four distinct species.

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An example of differing coat patterns which was previously used to classify Giraffe into 9 different sub-species. Image above from www.animalcorner.co.uk

Technically, animals that fall into the same species but remain in different sub-species are able to reproduce with one another and produce offspring that will remain fertile, but they often don’t because of geographical separation. This is where the research gets interesting because prior to the study being published, different sub-species of Giraffe were thought to mix in different regions and sometimes breed but the study suggested that this was not actually the case and after taking DNA samples from a number of Giraffe in the different regions they were able to conclude that the last time the 4 new species of Giraffe shared a common ancestor was between 1,5 to 2 million years ago. This is regarded as enough time needed to classify them into different species altogether.

But why are we only discovering this now? According to Jancke, it is because the Giraffe has been completely overlooked and understudied over the years because they are not as endangered as some of the other animals in Africa such as the elephant or the rhino, and he backs this up by revealing that there have only ever been about 4oo scientific papers written on Giraffe, compared to the 20 000 papers written on White Rhino. He also believes they haven’t been researched a lot because people are more fascinated by the predators such as lion, leopard and cheetah.

A giraffe meanders across Warrens Crest at sunset.

Despite their size Giraffe have often been overlooked as study subjects in favour of their more endangered or exciting counterparts such as elephant and lion.

This research will provide vital information for giraffe conservation going forward. For a start, if giraffe conservationists were to try and repopulate certain areas where giraffe numbers were dwindling and started to relocate what they previousky thought were different sub-species into the region, they could unknowingly create a hybridized species that differed from the species they were trying to save. In addition, the offspring of the hybrid species may not be able to reproduce themselves because of their genetic differences.

As it stands, people don’t believe that Giraffe are in danger even though in the last 30 years Africa has lost a third of its giraffe population, largely due to habitat loss. Despite this the iconic giraffe is currently listed as “of least concern” on the Red List of Endangered Species because of the fact that it was previously classified as a single species. Hopefully, by reclassifying Giraffe into 4 new species it will force the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to have a relook at their endangered lists. In a statement from the IUCN they said:

“If the findings of the current study are accepted, then it may well be that some species would be listed in threatened categories on the IUCN red list.

This would hopefully flag the need for increased attention on a species that is otherwise normally considered common.”

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The 4 new distinct species of Giraffe in Africa. Notice how the Northern Giraffe has 3 sub species and the Southern Giraffe has 2 sub species. Image from www.nrt-kenya.org

The four new species of giraffe in Africa are now the Northern, Southern, Reticulated and Masai Giraffe. There are still three different subspecies under the Northern Giraffe and two under the Southern Giraffe. Giraffe are often one of the more requested animals to see on safari just because they look so different to any other animal on earth, and tower above most things in their environment. Hopefully, with this new-found attention over the last few weeks, more people will be aware of just how much they need our hard work and conservation efforts in order to protect the now four different species of Giraffe in Africa.

Rich Laburn
Rich Laburn is filmmaker, photographer and writer who is based at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. Spending his time capturing scenes of the wild and communicating the beauty of the African bushveld, he runs the Londolozi Blog as a way to entertain and engage people wishing to visit these wild lands.
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