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How Many Giraffe Species Are There?

 
By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. January 14, 2024
How Many Giraffe Species Are There?

Towering over the African landscape, giraffes are not just the tallest land mammals on Earth, they are also captivating creatures with a rich history and complex social lives. Understanding the unique characteristics and threats faced by each subspecies is essential for effective conservation efforts.

This AnimalWised article will explore the four main species of giraffes that exist, as well as their main characteristics.

You may also be interested in: How Many Types of Bears Are There?

Giraffe characteristics

Giraffes are remarkable not only for their long necks but also for other unique features. Let's explore these characteristics in simpler terms:

  • Origins: giraffes' family history goes way back, around 600,000 to 800,000 years ago. During this time, the current giraffe species proved to be hardy and outlasted other variations.

  • Habitat: giraffes live all across Africa, in places like grasslands and deserts. They're flexible and can adapt to different environments.

  • Physique: giraffes are the tallest animals globally, and their size can vary depending on the type of giraffe they are.

  • Diet: giraffes eat plants and live together in groups. Their long necks help them reach high leaves on trees for food.

  • Life expectancy: in the wild, giraffes usually live for about 10 years.

  • Activity patterns: giraffes don't sleep much, only about two hours a day. They take short naps throughout the day. If you're curious about how giraffes sleep, we have more information for you.

Despite their ability to adapt, giraffes are in a tough spot when it comes to conservation. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers giraffes a vulnerable species. This is because of problems like illegal hunting, human activities spreading into their homes, and the impact of conflicts in various parts of Africa. These challenges highlight the need for urgent action to protect these amazing animals.

How many giraffe species are there?

There is one recognized species of giraffe, called Giraffa camelopardalis. Within this species, there are different types known as subspecies, each with its own unique traits and habitats.

The number of recognized giraffe subspecies can vary, and different experts may group them differently. The count of recognized subspecies isn't fixed and can change based on different viewpoints. However, commonly accepted classifications usually include:

  1. Masai Giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi)

  2. Southern Giraffe (Giraffa giraffa)

  3. Reticulated Giraffe (Giraffa reticulata)

  4. Northern Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis)

Apart from certain physical distinctions, each giraffe species has adjusted to its particular surroundings by developing distinct vocalizations, social structures, and even specific dietary preferences. Now, let's delve into the primary traits that define each of these species.

Masai Giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi)

The Masai Giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi) reigns supreme among the subspecies of Giraffa camelopardalis, claiming the vast savannas, woodlands, and grasslands of East Africa, particularly central and southern Kenya and Tanzania, as its kingdom.

Unlike their relatives, Masai Giraffes wear a unique coat, adorned with jagged, irregular spots that stand out boldly against a canvas of orange-brown. These spots, larger and more vine-like than those of other subspecies, extend down their legs, each outline as distinct as a jagged lightning bolt.

The Masai Giraffe is also one of the largest giraffe subspecies, typically standing around 4.88 to 5.49 meters (16 to 18 feet) tall.

Masai Giraffes are social animals, often found in loose groups. These groups can consist of individuals of different ages and both sexes. The social structure plays a role in communication, protection against predators, and sharing information about food sources.

Acacia leaves, buds, and fruits form the core of their diet. Their long, prehensile tongues, combined with agile lips, allow them to expertly grasp and strip leaves from even the thorniest branches.

Sadly, the Masai Giraffe, like its relatives, faces challenges. Habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and poaching cast a shadow over their future.

Dive into the dining habits of these long-necked herbivores in this other article.

How Many Giraffe Species Are There? - Masai Giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi)

Southern Giraffe (Giraffa giraffa)

The Southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa) primarily inhabits the southern regions of Africa, including South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. This subspecies thrives in diverse landscapes, encompassing savannahs, woodlands, and grasslands.

Moving on to its distinctive coat patterns, the Southern Giraffe's spots are irregular and vine-like. The coloration of their coat ranges from light tan to orange-brown, with spots appearing darker brown or nearly black.

In terms of size, Southern Giraffes are generally smaller compared to some counterparts. Males stand approximately 15 to 18 feet tall, translating to about 4.57 to 5.49 meters, while females are slightly shorter.

Regarding their social structure and behavior, Southern Giraffes exhibit social tendencies, forming loose groups that include individuals of various ages and both sexes.

Delving into their dietary habits, like other giraffes, the Southern Giraffe is a herbivore. Their diet mainly consists of leaves, buds, and fruits, and their unique physical adaptations, such as long necks and prehensile tongues, allow them to reach high branches in acacia trees.

It's important to note that while the Southern Giraffe as a whole is not currently listed as endangered, specific subspecies, such as the Angolan Giraffe, face ongoing conservation challenges. These include habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and poaching.

Explore the fascinating vocalizations of giraffes in this other article.

How Many Giraffe Species Are There? - Southern Giraffe (Giraffa giraffa)

Reticulated Giraffe (Giraffa reticulata)

The Reticulated Giraffe (Giraffa reticulata) is easily distinguishable by its striking coat pattern, characterized by a network of sharp-edged, reddish-brown polygons outlined by a network of white lines. This distinct pattern gives the giraffe its name.

The Reticulated Giraffe is mainly found in Eastern Africa, with its range extending across parts of Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia. This region includes both savannas and open woodlands where the giraffes can find suitable vegetation.

Like all giraffes, the Reticulated Giraffe is known for its towering height, making it the tallest living terrestrial animal. Adult males can reach heights of up to 5.5 meters (18 feet), while females are slightly shorter. They have a long neck, which allows them to reach high branches and foliage in trees, and their tongue can extend up to 45 cm (18 inches) to help grasp and pull leaves.

Their social structure is not as rigid as some other African herbivores, and the composition of groups can change over time.

The Reticulated Giraffe is listed as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. Conservation challenges include habitat loss, human-wildlife conflict, and poaching, emphasizing the need for targeted conservation efforts to protect this subspecies.

Unravel the science behind a giraffe's unique tongue in this other article.

How Many Giraffe Species Are There? - Reticulated Giraffe (Giraffa reticulata)

Northern Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis)

The term "Northern Giraffe" serves as an umbrella classification encompassing several distinct subspecies of giraffes found in North and East Africa. Each of these subspecies exhibits unique characteristics, coat patterns, and geographic distributions, contributing to the rich tapestry of giraffe diversity.

Nubian Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis):

  • Large, irregularly shaped spots with jagged edges. Often extends down the legs.

  • Primarily found in East Africa, including parts of Ethiopia and South Sudan.

  • Classified as Endangered.

Kordofan Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis antiquorum):

  • Large, irregular spots, with a lighter appearance.

  • Inhabits areas in Chad, Central African Republic, Cameroon, and possibly South Sudan.

  • Classified as Endangered.

West African Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis peralta):

  • Jagged and vine-leaf-shaped spots. Generally lighter in color.

  • Limited populations in Niger.

  • Classified as Endangered.

Rothschild's Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi):

  • Less jagged and irregularly spaced coat pattern. Often lacks spots on the lower legs.

  • Historically found in Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan; current populations in protected areas and private reserves.

  • Classified as Endangered.

You might be interested in this other article, where we explain in more detail the conservation challenges giraffes face.

How Many Giraffe Species Are There? - Northern Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis)

If you want to read similar articles to How Many Giraffe Species Are There?, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

Bibliography
  • Bercovitch, F., Carter, K., Fennessy, J. & Tutchings, A. 2018. Giraffa camelopardalis ssp. thornicrofti. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018.
  • Fennessy, S., Fennessy, J., Muller, Z., Brown, M. & Marais, A. 2018. Giraffa camelopardalis ssp. rothschildi. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018.
  • Muneza, A., Doherty, JB, Hussein Ali, A., Fennessy, J., Marais, A., O'Connor, D. & Wube, T. 2018. Giraffa camelopardalis ssp. reticulata. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018.
  • Fennessy, J., Marais, A. & Tutchings, A. 2018. Giraffa camelopardalis ssp. peralta. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018.
  • Muller, Z., Bercovitch, F., Brand, R., Brown, D., Brown, M., Bolger, D., Carter, K., Deacon, F., Doherty, J.B., Fennessy, J., Fennessy , S., Hussein, AA, Lee, D., Marais, A., Strauss, M., Tutchings, A. & Wube, T. 2018. Giraffa camelopardalis (amended version of 2016 assessment). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018.
  • Wube, T., Doherty, J.B., Fennessy, J. & Marais, A. 2018. Giraffa camelopardalis ssp. camelopardalis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018.
  • Marais, A., Fennessy, J., Fennessy, S., Brand, R. & Carter, K. 2018. Giraffa camelopardalis ssp. angolensis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018.
  • Fennessy, J. & Marais, A. 2018. Giraffa camelopardalis ssp. antiquorum. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018.
  • Brown, DM, Brenneman, RA, Koepfli, K. et al. Extensive population genetic structure in the giraffe. BMC Biol 5, 57 (2007) doi:10.1186/1741-7007-5-57.
  • Two subspecies of the Southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa) occur across Southern Africa and, together, they make up 50% of the continent's total giraffe numbers. Giraffe Conservation Foundation. Consult: https://giraffeconservation.org/giraffe-species/southern/

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