A herd of giraffe drinking at Nxai Pan National Park, Botswana. Photograph: Prof Yoshan Moodley

The giraffe is one of the most recognisable of all animal species, due to its long neck and immense size. It is the tallest animal to walk the earth and is a typical inhabitant of the remaining wild landscapes in Africa. Its long neck has caused many a biologist, including Charles Darwin himself, to wonder at how such a structure could have evolved from a short-necked camel-like ancestor.
Yet despite all this, very little was known about giraffe evolution until relatively recently. In 2016, a group of German and American scientists conducted a genetic study that suggested up to four distinct species of giraffe, instead of just one as has traditionally been the case.
This week, another team of evolutionary scientists based mainly in Denmark, but including our own Prof Yoshan Moodley, from the University of Venda’s Department of Zoology in the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Agriculture, has published a more in-depth paper on giraffe evolution in the prestigious journal Current Biology. The new study leverages the data of 78 giraffe sampled from across the species’ range and shows that while there are indeed four distinct giraffe populations, and subpopulations within these, all sampled giraffe have a
common ancestor approximately 280 thousand years ago. This is a quite recent timeframe, considering that all living humans have an even older common ancestor. The new study also showed that there have been several episodes of genetic contact and exchange between the various giraffe populations, including one event that led to a hybrid population. Therefore, considering their ability to successfully mate with each other and their recent common ancestor, it is highly unlikely that the giraffe consists of more than just a single biological species.
To read more about this fascinating work, please follow the link below which will take you to the article at the Current Biology website, where the article is open access.
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Department of Marketing, Branding and Communication
University of Venda
Tel: (015) 962 8525 /8710
Date: 14 March 2024

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