MIAMI • There are actually four species of giraffe, not one as previously believed, researchers have said, in a discovery that could change conservation efforts for the world's tallest mammal.
The study in the journal Current Biology is based on DNA evidence from skin biopsies of 190 giraffes across Africa.
Giraffe populations have dropped dramatically in Africa over the past few decades, going from about 150,000 to fewer than 100,000.
But giraffes have been little studied, compared to other large animals such as elephants, rhinoceroses, gorillas and lions.
Until now, researchers believed there was one species of giraffe, and as many as nine sub-species. The latest data shows there are four distinct species of giraffe, which apparently do not mate with one another in the wild.
"Those four species include (the) southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa), Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi), reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata), and northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis), which includes the Nubian giraffe (G. c. camelopardalis) as a distinct sub-species," said the study.
1. Masai giraffe, G. tippelskirchi
2. Reticulated giraffe, G. reticulata
3. Southern giraffe, Giraffa giraffa
4. Northern giraffe, G. camelopardalis, includes the Nubian giraffe (G. c. camelopardalis)
It also said the genetic differences among giraffe species "are at least as great as those between polar and brown bears".
"We were extremely surprised, because the morphological and coat pattern differences between giraffes are limited," says Dr Axel Janke, a geneticist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre and Goethe University in Germany.
"Consequently, giraffes should be recognised as four distinct species despite their similar appearance," said Dr Janke.
Now, researchers say some giraffes could be considered for listing as a vulnerable or endangered species on the Red List maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
For example, the northern giraffe numbers fewer than 4,750 individuals in the wild, and there are fewer than 8,700 reticulated giraffes, making each species among the most endangered large mammals in the world, the research team said.