Of all the mammals on the African savannah, we long thought that the lithesome giraffe was a singular beast.
Now, geneticists have discovered that the giraffe isn’t one monolithic species—Giraffa camelopardalis—but four.
The four new species had been, in a way, hiding in plain sight. The new study was supported by conservationists who were interested in understanding how different giraffe subspecies and populations would interact if they were relocated to the same reserve. By studying the gene pools of the various groups, they hoped to learn whether different subspecies and populations would interbreed if placed together.
In fact, genetic analysis showed that four groups haven’t interbred for 1–2 million years, a long enough time that Axel Janke, a geneticist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre, and his coauthors think the four represent entirely different species. “I’d never seen that in a population study [of a species] before.” he told BBC News.
Here’s Victoria Gill, reporting for BBC News with more:
While giraffes had always been thought to be of one species, Dr Janke likened the difference between one species and another – in terms of their genetic code – to the that of a Polar bear compared to a brown bear.
This suggests that each species is adapted for a specific environment or diet – a question that is the subject of his team’s next research project.
The four new species are the southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa), the Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi), the reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata), and the northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis). The last also includes a subspecies of its own, the Nubian giraffe (G. camelopardalis camelopardalis).
Genetic studies such as these allow conservationists to evaluate the viability of species and populations, helping to devise strategies to ensure their long-term survival. That giraffes are actually four distinct species complicates the picture since different species aren’t guaranteed to breed with each other. With fewer potential mates, each species will have a more difficult time keeping its numbers up. That puts the entire genus of Giraffa in a more precarious position than it already is—numbers of the charismatic animals have fallen 40% in the last 15 years.