Giraffes no longer a single species

A new study published in “Current Biology” reveals that giraffes should be separated into four different species, not one, as was previously thought.

Currently, giraffes are all considered members of the species Giraffa camelopardalis, which contains 11 subspecies based on coat patterns and geographic location. However, a recent study discovered that some giraffes are “about as genetically distinct as a polar bear is from a black bear,” the study’s lead author Dr. Axel Janke told “Nature. After examining DNA from skin biopsies, researchers are hungry to know exactly what kind of barriers separated the giraffes and allowed new species to evolve. Since giraffes are “highly mobile,” Janke speculates that the barriers must have been geographic ones, such as rivers.

According to “Nature,” the study recommends dividing giraffes into four different species: “the southern giraffe (G. giraffa), found mainly in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana; the Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi) of Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia; the reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata) found mainly in Kenya, Somalia and southern Ethiopia; and the northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis), found in scattered groups in the central and eastern parts of the continent.”

The Nubian giraffe (G. camelopardalis camelopardalis), found in Ethiopia and South Sudan, will remain a subspecies, falling under the northern giraffe.

The discovery of the four species has important implications for conservation. The fact that it has taken until now to identify the separate species reflects a limited body of research on giraffes, which, unfortunately, means that their population decline has gone largely unnoticed. Due to hunting and habitat loss, fewer than 80,000 giraffes are alive in the wild today, and Janke explains that the northern and reticulated giraffes will require special care, as their species only have 4,750 and 8,700 individuals, respectively. Prior to the release of this study, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature had classified giraffes as a single species under the category of “Least Concern” because they numbered over 100,000, so the news of two new species with such small numbers should help prioritize their conservation, according to the BBC.

Dr. Janke is committed to raising awareness for giraffe conservation, “to protect this beautiful animal of which we know so little.”