September 9 – Rubbernecking

Today’s factismal: Scientists have recently identified four distinct species of giraffe.

Giraffes have been in the news a lot lately, and for an unusual reason. It isn’t because they’ve been robbing banks or running for office; no, it is because there are both a lot more and a lot fewer giraffes than we used to think. How can it be both? Welcome to science!

The giraffe's spots help hide them in the brush (My camera)

The giraffe’s spots help hide them in the brush
(My camera)

Scientists used to classify giraffes into nine different subspecies, mostly named after the region where they were first identified: Nubian, Angolan (Namibian), Kordofan, Masai (Kilimanjaro), Rothschild’s, South African, Rhodesian, and the common reticulated giraffe. Each subspecies of giraffe lives in a different part of Africa with a different environment. For example, the shorter trees of mean the Kordofan giraffe is smaller than the Masai which lives in a region with taller trees. And the common reticulated giraffe is adapted to live in almost any savanah or woodland in Africa. Now the interesting thing about a subspecies is that it can (and will) have children with a member of another subspecies. So, under the old classification, we could expect to see giraffes that are children of South African and Rhodesian or of reticulated and Rothschild’s.

Two juvenile giraffes on the road to adulthood (My camera)

Two juvenile giraffes on the road to adulthood
(My camera)

But when scientists started looking at the DNA of the giraffe subspecies, they discovered something interesting. Though some of the subspecies were interbreeding, many were not and had not for more than a million years. They weren’t subspecies at all; they were distinct species! And “giraffe” didn’t mean one type of animal – it meant four!Just as there are several species of “cat” (e.g., lion, tigers, and housecats {oh, my!}), there are now four species of giraffe:

  • Southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa),
  • Reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata),
  • Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi),
  • Northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis) and Nubian giraffe subspecies (G. c. camelopardis)
A giraffe nibbling on acacia trees (My camera)

A giraffe nibbling on acacia trees
(My camera)

Now this has implications beyond just telling us which giraffes have been having fun. For example, there are about 90,000 giraffes in the wild if we count all four species. That’s enough to make them of Least Concern to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature even though the number of giraffes has declined by about 40% since 2001. But that 90,000 isn’t distributed evenly. There are a lot of reticulated giraffes and Southern giraffes and not nearly as many Masai giraffes; as a result, some of the species may be in danger of extinction.

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike (My camera)

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike
(My camera)

So how can we tell? With science, of course. Snapshot Serengeti has been operating camera traps in Africa for several years now and they’d love for you to go through their photographs and tell them which animals you see. And you’ll see more than just the four species of giraffe. There are lions and tigers and warthogs (oh, my). So head on over and let them know what you find!
https://www.snapshotserengeti.org/

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