Tall tale: study reveals that giraffes
are four species, not one
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[September 09, 2016]
By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Genetic research on
the world's tallest land animal has found that there are four distinct
species of giraffe, not just one as long believed, with two of them at
alarmingly low population levels.
Scientists on Thursday unveiled a comprehensive genetic analysis of
giraffes using DNA from 190 of the towering herbivores from across their
range in Africa.
The genetic data showed that four separate species of giraffes that do
not interbreed in the wild inhabit various parts of the continent.
"We were extremely surprised," said conservationist Julian Fennessy,
co-director of the Namibia-based Giraffe Conservation Foundation.
Beyond genetics, the researchers identified differences among the four
species including body shape, coloration and coat patterns.
Genetic differences among the four species were comparable to those
between polar bears and brown bears, said geneticist Axel Janke of the
Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre and Goethe
University in Germany.
Until now, scientists had recognized a single species, with the
scientific name Giraffa camelopardalis.
The study identified the four separate species as: the southern giraffe
(Giraffa giraffa), with a population of 52,000; the Masai giraffe
(Giraffa tippelskirchi), with 32,500; the reticulated giraffe (Giraffa
reticulata), with 8,700; and the northern giraffe (Giraffa
camelopardalis), with 4,750.
"The conservation implications are immense and our findings will
hopefully help put giraffe conservation on the map," Fennessy said.
The giraffe currently is not listed as endangered, although its
population has declined dramatically over the past three decades from
more than 150,000 to fewer than 100,000, the researchers said.
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Nubian giraffes are seen in Murchison Falls, Uganda in this undated
handout picture. Courtesy Julian Fennessy/Handout via REUTERS
But the low population levels of the northern giraffe and
reticulated giraffe make them some of the world's most endangered
large mammals and of high conservation importance, Fennessy said.
Giraffes stand up to about 18 feet (5.5 meters) tall, with long
necks and legs, a sloped back and two to five short knobs called
ossicones atop the head. They have a tan, white or yellowish coat
blotched with brownish patches.
They roam the savannas of central, eastern and southern Africa, as
far north as Chad, south to South Africa, east to Somalia and west
Fennessy said the biggest threats to the giraffe include habitat
destruction due to human population growth as well as poaching for
bush meat, their tail hair and "medicinal" parts.
Their closest relative is the long-necked African mammal called the
The research was published in the journal Current Biology.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by David Gregorio)
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