Researchers discover there are not one – but four species of giraffe

Discovery of genetic changes, use DNA analysis, could boost efforts to save declining populations

Researchers have discovered there are not just one but four distinct species of giraffe, overruling two centuries of accepted wisdom in a finding that could boost efforts to save the last dwindling populations.

Analysis of DNA evidence from all of the currently recognised nine sub-species found that there is not just one species of giraffe but enough genetic changes to recognise four distinct species. Experts said the differences are as large as those between brown bears and polar bears.

Giraffe have suffered a decline in number from around 150,000 across Africa three decades ago to 100,000 today, as their habitat has been turned over to agriculture. But as a single species the giraffe is currently listed as of least fear on the red list of endangered species, leaving the tallest living animals a relatively low preservation focus compared to rhino and elephant.

People need to really figure out that giraffes are in danger. “Theres only” 100,000 giraffes left in Africa. Well be working closely with governments and big NGOs to set giraffes on the radar, told Dr Julian Fennessy, lead author of the new study which assured genetic testing in Germany on 190 giraffe.

The four recommended new species are the southern giraffe, with two subspecies, the Angolan giraffe and South African giraffe; the Masai giraffe; the reticulated giraffe; and the northern giraffe including the Kordofan giraffe and west African giraffe as subspecies.

If formally recognised as four separate species, three of those four would suddenly be deemed more seriously threatened by the red list, Fennessay told, which would hopefully catalyse greater efforts to protect them.

A Masai giraffe, one of the four freshly recognised species, grazing inside Nairobi national park. Photograph: Simon Maina/ AFP/ Getty Images

While the southern giraffe was increasing markedly in number, populations in east and central Africa were in trouble, he told.

Its all habitat loss, fragmentation and a lot of that is, lets be honest, linked to human population growth increasing land for agricultural needs, whether for commercial or for subsistence farming, he told, speaking from Windhoek, Namibia. In some of these countries though there is illegal hunting or poaching causing the decline.

Co-author Axel Janke, a geneticist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre and Goethe University in Germany, told: This has huge implications for conservation. Its also significant from an evolutionary aspect: the giraffe is a very young species and we ensure evolution, becoming species, in real time, happening in front of our eyes.

Both said they were surprised at the number of genetically distinct species, because the currently recognised nine subspecies are comparatively similar-looking. The most obvious changes are in the shape of their patterns and how far they widen, and how many horns the beasts have.

The study also suggested that the four species do not mate with each other in the wild, an unexpected finding dedicated giraffe move far and wide, and have been shown to interbreed in captivity.

The historically accepted definition of one species of giraffe was based on a description in 1758 by the Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus, who examined a Nubian giraffe( now to be considered as a northern giraffe ). The new study discovery that there are in fact four will not come as a a total surprise to those who study giraffe closely previous research has suggested some subspecies seemed genetically distinct enough to be considered separate species.

The conclusions of the study, which took five years, will be now be reviewed by the International Union for Conservation of Natures specialist group on giraffes.

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