You may have seen different giraffes and thought all of them were the same species. Even scientists thought the same for many years. The giraffe was considered a single species with nine further subspecies based on their location and appearance.
Only in 2016 was it agreed that there are four species of giraffe. After extensive genetic research by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, Senckenberg Biodiversity and the Climate Research Centre, scientists have unravelled the mystery. They found that there are four distinct giraffe species in the wild.
Giraffes have been around for a long time, and you may be wondering why such a study was only conducted recently. Jancke(co-author of the genetic study) believed that giraffes were understudied and overlooked for years as people were more interested in researching species like white rhinos, which were more endangered. He also pointed out that the fascination with predators kept the interests of researchers towards lions, cheetahs, and leopards.
The giraffe population has been declining across the African continent. According to a study, in 15 years, the giraffe population has dropped to 100,000 individuals from 140,000 individuals. In contrast to the other three species, the population of the Southern giraffe species is increasing, whereas the other species’ population is declining.
Historically giraffes were considered one species and “Least Concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This genetic study would be very effective for conservationists to focus their efforts on protecting the giraffe species facing more threats and needs more protection.
Southern giraffes mainly inhabit woodlands and savannahs where plenty of food is available. They feed on fruits, leaves, flowers, and shoots of plants like Acacia.
Southern giraffes have dark reddish-brown spots that are rounded and asymmetric. Unlike other species, which have faded colour in their legs, the Southern giraffe has spots all over its limbs, which get smaller as it draws nearer to the feet.
The Southern giraffe has further two subspecies.
⦁ The Angolan subspecies are extinct in Angola, although it got its name from there. Currently, it is found in the southwest of Zambia, western Zimbabwe, north of Namibia, and Botswana. They are comparatively lighter in colour. In arid regions like Namibia, they may seem colourless. They have irregular light brown patches and they have uneven spots on their lower legs
⦁ The South African subspecies are found in southern Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa. They have star-shaped patches in many shades of brown surrounded by tan colour. Their lower legs also have uneven random spots.
Northern giraffes inhabit woodlands, shrublands, and savannahs. They are the most endangered and least numerous species. Northern giraffes have larger ossicones, i.e. horn-like protuberances on their forehead, than southern giraffes. Male northern giraffes have the third ossicone as well. The leg spots decrease as you get closer to knee height, and below that, they’re almost spotless.
They have three subspecies, i.e. Kordofan giraffe, Nubian giraffe, and West African giraffe.
⦁ Kordofan giraffes are primarily present in high conflict levels and political instability areas. They are distributed in Northern Cameroon, Chad, the Central African Republic, and the Northern Democratic Republic of Congo. They have irregular pale patches.
⦁ Nubian giraffes are distributed in Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya. They have sharp chestnut coloured large patches which are separated by white lines.
⦁ West African giraffes were once widely distributed from Nigeria to Senegal, but now they are only present in Southwestern Niger. They have a lighter colour than other subspecies and tan-coloured rectangular patches.
The Masai giraffe is the largest species of giraffe. Masai giraffes are also known as Kilimanjaro giraffes. They are also the world’s tallest mammals. Adult males can grow up to 19.5 feet tall, while females can grow between 16 and 18 feet tall. Like the neck, which is internally composed of seven long vertebrae and visually displays a mane down, their legs are around two meters long.
The Masai giraffe can be distinguished by its body’s jagged and uneven patches. These patches are big, dark brown, shaped like vine leaves with sharp edges. A creamy-brown colour surrounds the spots and runs down their legs. The Masai Giraffes devote most of their time to feeding. They are grazers and may spend up to 20 hours every day grazing or searching for food.
They can be further divided into two subspecies, i.e. Masai giraffes and Luangwa giraffes.
⦁ Masai giraffes are found in central and southern Kenya and across Tanzania.
⦁ Luangwa giraffes are found as an isolated population in Zambia’s South Luangwa Valley. They are endemic to Zambia. They resemble Masai giraffes more than any other subspecies and are also present only at a distance of about 300km, but no movement between them has been recorded.
The reticulated giraffe is also known as the Somali giraffe. It has a very limited distribution range now. You can find reticulated giraffes in North Kenya, Southern Ethiopia, and Southern Somalia. There has been at least a 50% decline in its population over the last 35 years.
They inhabit dry savannahs, rainforests, plains, and open forests. Like all the other species, reticulated giraffes eat leaves, branches, and bark from trees, but the acacia tree provides most of their food.
They stand between 13 and 16 feet tall and weigh around 2,600 pounds. The brown markings of their coat are delineated and homogeneous in tone. They cover most of their body, including the face and tail, with thin, well-defined white spaces between them, and the coat pattern looks like polygonal figures.
If you have seen a giraffe in a zoo, the chances are that it was a reticulated giraffe as they are mostly the common species in zoos worldwide.