A Giraffe by Any Other Name

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^This Masai giraffe in Kenya may soon have its own official species, Giraffa tippelskirchi. Credit: © Shutterstock

Extensive sampling of giraffe populations from previously recognized giraffe subspecies, under the one and only giraffe species (Giraffa camelopardalis), has turned up a great surprise: instead of just one species of giraffe, there may be four! After studying skin biopsies from 190 giraffes from all around Africa, a group of scientists have suggested that giraffe species are as different from one another as polar bears are from grizzly bears. The findings, reported in Current Biology in early September, followed previous speculation of multiple giraffe species.

Giraffes, the tallest of all animals, live in Africa south of the Sahara in open woodlands. They feed on the leaves, twigs, and fruit of trees and bushes. A giraffe, like a cow, chews its cud, which is food that has entered the stomach but returned to the mouth for a second chewing. The giraffe’s closest relative—and the only other member of the giraffe family—is the rare okapi, which thus far remains limited to one species.

Each individual giraffe has its own distinct coat pattern. These patterns, the recent report contends, are the easiest way to tell the species apart. These species are: northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa), reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata), and Masai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi). The scientists believe rivers and other physical barriers may have separated giraffe populations long enough for the distinct species to develop.

Two of the newly identified species are critically endangered. One such species, the northern giraffe—which has three subspecies, the Kordofan, Nubian, and West African—has a total population of fewer than 5,000 individuals. Many of these giraffes live in unstable areas in central Africa. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Kordofan giraffe is hunted for its tail, which many local people consider a status symbol.

Other African mammals such as the elephant, lion, and rhinoceros have been studied extensively, but the giraffe has been largely overlooked. More than 2 million giraffes lived in Africa just 150 years ago. They have rapidly declined since then, however, particularly over the last 15 to 30 years. They now number only about 90,000 individuals. Once the new findings are definitively proven, different giraffe species classifications could entirely change how conservationists protect them.

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