For centuries, scientists believed all giraffes fell under one species.
A new study changes all that, showing the lanky creatures are not one species, but rather four different ones.
The findings appeared in the journal Current Biology this week, highlighting the need for further studies of the four genetically isolated species, according to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, which was part of the research.
Until now, the gentle African mammals were all classified under the Giraffa camelopardalis species.
The new study puts them under four species that include the northern giraffe, southern giraffe, reticulated giraffe and Masai giraffe.
“The genetic analysis shows that there are four highly distinct groups of giraffe, which apparently do not mate with each other in the wild,” the conservation group said. “As a result, they … should be recognized as four distinct species.”
“While this study is undoubtedly exciting, it is also vital to shaping giraffe conservation programs in Africa, and how conservationists prioritize their scant resources to protect as well as learn more about these graceful giants,” said David O’Connor, a community-based conservation ecologist at San Diego Zoo Global. “Our hope is that this announcement will raise awareness and mobilize increased support for giraffe conservation, and better focus our collective efforts on the ground for giraffe and the people living with them, before its too late.”
Little research on giraffes
Scientists have wrongly assumed all giraffes fall under one species because of the limited study of the long-necked animals.
“There has been relatively little research done on giraffes in comparison to other large animals, such as elephants, rhinoceroses, gorillas and lions,” the conservation group said.
The limited research has also overlooked one major concern: their declining numbers.
While giraffes have not made headlines for their risk of extinction, their numbers have reduced substantially over the past three decades, from more than 150,000 to fewer than 100,000, according to the conservation group. That is a 40 percent drop over the last 30 years, sparking concern that if the trend continues, these iconic animals could become extinct in the wild within a generation.
“With now four distinct species, the conservation status of each of these can be better defined and in turn hopefully added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List in time,” Dr. Julian Fennessy of Giraffe Conservation Foundation said in a statement.
The Red List keeps an inventory of the global conservation status of biological species and flags those at risk of extinction.
The new discovery will help shed light on the numbers for each species and help scientists focus on targeted conservation efforts.
Numbers for some of the newly-discovered species already look grim.
Of the about 100,000 giraffes left, only 4,750 are northern giraffes and 8,700 are reticulated giraffes, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation said.