If you thought all giraffes were created equal, think again: There are actually four distinct species of giraffes in the world!
The delightful, long-necked animals had previously all been considered members of Giraffa camelopardalis, a single species.
Now, though, new genetic analysis has revealed tells us that the genus Giraffa actually encompasses FOUR distinct species — and there might even be more!
The Washington Post shared this big giraffe news, which was published in Current Biology this week. Interestingly, though, the three species of giraffe some people consider to be “new” already existed — they were just previously thought of as one subspecies of Giraffa camelopardalis, or the northern giraffe. However, these new findings reveal the southern giraffe, the Masai giraffe, and the reticulated giraffe as individual, unique species.
As for why scientists are just figuring this out now, well, apparently giraffes aren’t exactly the most popular animal to research. According to study author Axel Janke, an evolutionary biologist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center in Germany as told to National Geographic:
“Only 400 scientific papers have been written about giraffes, versus 20,000 papers on white rhinos.”
The comparative lack of research on giraffes is pretty shocking; However, we do know that there are nine giraffe subspecies (this includes the four that the study recommends promoting to full species). Also, the DNA samples analyzed during this study tells us that the four potential species last shared an ancestor between 1.5 and 2 million years ago.
This news might also have a huge impact on giraffe conservation: Although the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers giraffes to be a species of “least concern,” the new distinctions might mean that each individual one is in fact endangered.
In a statement, study author Julian Fennessy of Giraffe Conservation Foundation in Namibia explained: “As an example, northern giraffe number less than 4,750 individuals in the wild, and reticulated giraffe number less than 8,700 individuals — as distinct species, it makes them some of the most endangered large mammals in the world.”
Luckily, with this new knowledge from the study, it’s more likely that giraffes will be correctly classified, and that conservationists can begin their work preserving each distinct species in the genus.