Giraffes are not one species, but four, according to a new study

Gene analysis suggests that there are four highly distinct giraffe species.  

Rothschild's giraffes
Rothschild’s giraffes may now be reclassified as a subspecies of one of the four main giraffe species. © BFF


New research proposes that four distinct species of giraffe exist, rather than one species comprised of various subspecies, which may lead to a reclassification of the animals’ conservation status.

International wildlife charity, Born Free Foundation, has welcomed the discovery, published in Current Biology.

“The findings of this study come at a relevant time when the status of the giraffe is being reassessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List,” said Born Free’s Dr Liz Greengrass. 

“The recognition of four separate species will enable a better understanding of their conservation status and ensure that conservation attention is well placed to protect giraffe diversity.”

Giraffes have been classified as all belonging to the same species prior to this study, which was undertaken by a collaborative research team supported by LOEWE (the State of Hesse’s funding programme), the Leibniz Association, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, the Leiden Conservation Foundation, the Auckland Zoo, and various African government partners and international supporters.

The team examined DNA taken from skin biopsies of 190 giraffes collected across Africa.

This sampling included populations from all nine previously recognised giraffe subspecies and led to findings that suggest there are four highly distinct groups of giraffes: 

Northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis)

Southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa

Reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata

Masai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi

The differences in each group’s genetic composition suggest there’s little crossover between the species and so they must have evolved separately.

Current giraffe numbers mean the IUCN classifies the animals a species of ‘least concern’.

But if the results of this study lead to the overall figure being split between the four species, the adjustment could lead to each of them being classified as a species that is under threat. 

Read more news stories in BBC Wildlife Magazine

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