They make all look the same but the long-neck giraffe has actually four species, a new study found.
Known to many as a mammal belonging to only one species, this iconic African animal has four separate ones, shedding light on its conservation and protection needs. In a study published in the journal Current Biology, giraffes are said to be divided into four distinct lineages, not just subspecies.
At present, scientists and animal experts claim that giraffes belong to the species Giraffa camelopardalis, with 11 subspecies recognized based on their coat patterns and where they live. However, a closer assessment of their genes shows that giraffes should be divided into four species that do not interbreed in the wild.
"It was an amazing finding," study lead investigator Axel Janke, a geneticist at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, said in a statement.
"The million-dollar question is what kept them apart in the past," he said, adding that perhaps physical barriers like rivers kept the giraffe population separated, hindering new species to arise.
The study suggests that giraffes should be separated into the Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi), the southern giraffe (G. giraffe), the northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis) and the reticulated giraffe (G. reticulate).
According to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), giraffes are largely under-studied compared to other large animals in Africa such as elephants, gorillas, lions and rhinoceroses.
"We were extremely surprised because the morphological and coat pattern differences between giraffe are limited," Janke said.
"Giraffe are also assumed to have similar ecological requirements across their range, but no one really knows, because this megafauna has been largely overlooked by science," he added.
The population of giraffes has dramatically declined over the past three decades in Africa. The population decreased from more than 150,000 to less than 100,000. Despite this decline, little research has been done to conserve and protect their population. Thus, the new study aims to shed light on the animal's genetics to help scientists plan for its protection in the wild.