Genetic testing finds four distinct species of giraffes, and some populations are dangerously low levels.
All this time, we thought they were the same. Not a whole lot of attention has been paid to conservation efforts for the giraffes of the world, even though in the last few decades, their numbers have been falling to about two-thirds of the 150,000 that roamed the plains of Africa just 30 years ago.
But a new analysis of the genetics of the giraffes has found they are at least four different species, and when looking at them in the different light, some of their population numbers are quite alarming, according to an article on phys.org.
The story begins about five years back, when Julian Fennessy of Giraffe Conservation Foundation in Namibia reached out to Axel Janke, a geneticist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre and Goethe University in Germany, to determine how giraffes in separate regions of the continent were different from each other.
Fennessy was concerned that the relocation of some giraffes may have inadvertently caused the mixing of species or sub-species, and was looking to establish some guidelines for future relocations into parks or protected areas.
Previously, scientists had identified nine sub-species of giraffes, so Fennessy and his team collected skin biopsies from 190 giraffes across the continent and across the known sub-species. These samples were sent to Janke for DNA testing, and the surprising results show there are four distinct giraffe species, and they will apparently not mate across species in the wild.
Those four species include the southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa), the Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi), the reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata), and the northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis). The last group includes the Nubian giraffe (G. c. camelopardalis) as a distinct subspecies.
The researchers say the discovery has significant conservation implications and Fennessy added, “Working collaboratively with African governments, the continued support of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and partners can highlight the importance of each of these dwindling species, and hopefully kick start targeted conservation efforts and internal donor support for their increased protection.”
Fennessy pointed out that with the new classifications, the northern giraffe now numbers less than 4,750 individuals, and the reticulated giraffe population stands at less than 8,700, making them some of the most endangered animals in the world today.
The research team says the findings, published in Current Biology, highlight the urgent need for the study of genetically isolated species, and the need for giraffe conservation efforts.