Not One, But Six Giraffe Species

on January 5, 2008
Featured in News to Know

The giraffe, the world’s tallest animal, may not be a single species but instead may contain several species, according to a report in BMC Biology.

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The report analyzed the genes of African giraffes and concluded that “variation in hair coat colour is evident across the giraffe’s range in sub-Saharan Africa, suggesting reproductive isolation.” Lead study author David Brown, a UCLA geneticist, explained that, “Using molecular techniques we found that giraffes can be classified into six groups that are reproductively isolated and not interbreeding.”

Giraffes are currently considered one species, though there are further subspecies divisions.

Giraffes are currently considered one species, though there are further subspecies divisions. The research suggests division into six or more different species, with varying coat colors.

Traditionally, the “species” designation referred to organisms that could interbreed; two organisms of the same species could, whereas two organisms of different species shouldn’t have been able to. However, the species designation is increasingly used for more narrow delineation, and numerous examples of members of different species (or genera, or even families) mating successfully have become more frequent. For example, although the team suggests six or more giraffe species, Brown notes that, “although the giraffes look different, if you put them in zoos, they breed freely.”

So why does this matter? As time passes, different populations lose genetic information as they naturally adapt to their surroundings, diverging genetically from other populations. Sometimes these divergences lead to organisms that cannot interbreed; other times, the organisms look dramatically different but can still interbreed.

If we reverse the process and head back in time, we recognize that at creation, the number of created kinds must have been far fewer than the number of species we observe today. This is particularly significant when discussing such issues as how long it took for Adam to name the animals and how all of the animals could have fit aboard Noah’s Ark; the biblical description of “kinds” is much broader than today’s idea of species.

Also, when we see variations of similar animals in the fossil record, we see it as different members of the same or similar kinds that naturally adapted to different habitats, becoming increasingly unique along the way.

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