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Scientists discover that there are four species of giraffe, rather than just one

ByClaire Hutchison

Sep 13, 2016

It has been recently discovered that there are four different species of giraffe. This comes as a surprise to scientists, as it has been long thought that there was just one species.

Within this one species, it was previously accepted that there were nine sub-species. DNA taken from 190 giraffes across these sub-species has been analysed to discover these recent re-categorisations. A species can be defined as a group of organisms that mate to produce fertile offspring. It is now believed that these four separate species do not mate in the wild. Despite being relatively similar looking, researchers have suggested that these species of giraffe are as genetically different as, for example, brown bears and polar bears.

There are as little as 100,000 giraffes living across Africa today, a decrease of 50,000 in the last 30 years. When considered a single species, this put giraffes on the list of least concern on the red list of endangered species. Unfortunately, these new findings will put three out of the four species on the seriously threatened list.

These four species have been named the Southern giraffe, the Masai giraffe, the Reticulated giraffe and the Northern giraffe. There are thought to be as little as 4,750 Northern giraffes in the wild. According to Julian Fennessy, of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation in Namibia, this “makes them some of the most endangered large mammals in the world.”

The study, Multi-locus Analyses Reveal Four Giraffe Species Instead of One, took five years to carry out and was recently released in the journal Current Biology. Co-author, Axel Janke, a geneticist at Goethe University, Germany stated that, “This has huge implications for conservation. It’s also significant from an evolutionary aspect: the giraffe is a very young species and we see evolution, becoming species, in real time, happening in front of our eyes.”

The results of this study will shortly be examined by a specialist group in the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In an official statement the IUCN said: “The number of species of giraffes has come in for much discussion and debate in recent years. The findings of this latest study will need to be carefully evaluated, as it could, as the authors note, have considerable implications for their conservation. We know that giraffes, while widely distributed, are declining nearly across their range, with some narrowly distributed populations in serious trouble.”

Their findings will determine whether these species of giraffe are officially deemed threatened, suggesting drastic efforts need to be made for their conservation. Furthermore, these findings show the scope of possibility for new scientific discoveries to be made that assist conservation.

Image: Luca Galuzzi

By Claire Hutchison

Science & Technology Editor and Secretary of The Student, 4th year Environmental Geoscience student.

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