Genetic analysis uncovers four highly distinct species of giraffe across Africa, which apparently do not mate with each other
We have grown up learning about just a single species of giraffe that has been divided into nine further subspecies. But a new research suggests that there are actually four distinct species of giraffes, not just one and they are named northern giraffe, southern giraffe, reticulated giraffe, and Masai giraffe. The genetic difference among those species is as great as seen in brown bears and polar bears that diverged from each other about five million years ago.
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The finding came as a surprise as giraffes are not known to have many close relatives. The discovery also reflects how little we know about one of the largest animals on our planet.
“We were extremely surprised, because the morphological and coat pattern differences between giraffe are limited… but no one really knows, because this megafauna has been largely overlooked by science.” Co-author Axel Janke, a geneticist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre, Germany said.
Researchers reached their conclusion after analyzing the DNA of giraffe’s subspecies living in different parts of Africa.
So how did they start it? Almost 5 years ago, Namibia-based Giraffe Conservation Foundation collaborated with German biologists to conduct the first comprehensive genetic analysis of giraffe's subspecies across Africa and their purpose was to know similarities and differences among these giraffes.
In the large-scale study, researchers examined the DNA evidence taken from the skins of 190 sub-saharan Africa giraffes and the analysis showed that there are four highly distinct groups of giraffe, which apparently do not interbreed.
“It was surprising to see these different subspecies were genetically so distinct—there was no intermixing.” Axel Janke told National Geographic.
The discovery not only improves our understanding of this long-necked herbivore, but also may help save the giraffe population whose numbers are declining dramatically across their range in Africa. Their numbers have dropped from 150,000 individuals to fewer than 100,000 over the last three decades.
“With now four distinct species, the conservation status of each of these can be better defined and in turn added to the IUCN Red List,” said Julian Fennessy from Giraffe Conservation Foundation in Namibia. “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."