Nuclear Sequencing Redefines Giraffe Species
A recent genetic analyses published in Current Biology identifies four distinct species of giraffe, as opposed to only one, as previously thought. This study, which was the first to both study Nubian giraffes and use nuclear sequencing to do so, has significant implications for giraffe conservation across Africa.
Prior to this report, all giraffes were assumed to belong to a single species, the northern giraffe, or Giraffa camelopardalis. Nine sub-species existed, based on taxonomically unreliable and superficial characteristics, such as coat pattern, ossicones, and geographic distribution. These new findings demonstrate that most giraffe subspecies are actually composed of genetically divergent lineages and in doing so, synonymized and reclassified identical or different giraffes. This was the first study to analyze nuclear gene data from all the previously recognized subspecies. Rigorous statistical testing supports the recognition of the four distinct species: southern giraffe (G. giraffa), Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi), reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata), and northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis). The four species are further divided into sub-species (1).
This division of the dwindling giraffe population into four distinct species could revamp conservation efforts. Conservation efforts have faced a series of obstacles in the past. Due in part to civil unrest in areas home to giraffes, many of the issues are grounded in inadequate genetic analysis and population information (1). Noted giraffe conservation expert and author of the study, Julian Fennessey, said “With now four distinct species, the conservation status of each of these can be better defined and in turn added to the IUCN Red List (2)."
Fennessy, Julian, Tobias Bidon, Friederike Reuss, Vikas Kumar, Paul Elkan, Maria A. Nilsson, Melita Vamberger, Uwe Fritz, and Axel Janke. "Multi-locus analyses reveal four giraffe species instead of one." Current Biology 26, no. 18 (2016): 2543-2549.
Morell, Virginia. "Inside the Fight to Stop Giraffes' 'Silent Extinction'" National Geographic. June 25, 2015. Accessed December 28, 2016. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/06/150625-giraffes-animals-science-conservation-africa-endangered/.
- Feltman, Rachel. " Giraffes aren’t just giraffes. Turns out there are four species." The Washington Post, September 9, 2016. Accessed December 29, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2016/09/09/giraffes-arent-just-giraffes-turns-out-there-are-four-species/?utm_term=.249933a7a8fa.