They have the same long necks, the same gangly legs, but they are different species.
Giraffes, long categorized as only Giraffa camelopardalis, can actually be separated into four distinct species. The genetic differences are as great as between brown bears and polar bears, which the human eye can more easily identify as separate animal groups.
By studying the DNA of the creatures indigenous across African savannahs, scientists discovered that the nine previously identified subspecies of giraffe fit better into four distinct species categories. Skin samples of 190 giraffes revealed that the species separated between 1.25 million and 2 million years ago, but that the four groups may still interbreed.
The world’s tallest mammal can now be known by its four species names: the southern giraffe, the northern giraffe, the Masai giraffe and the reticulated giraffe.
Populations of giraffes have been declining in recent years, but the animal hasn’t received as much conservation attention as some of its neighbors like the elephant and rhino. There are an estimated 90,000 in Africa, down from 140,000.
“It’s all habitat loss, fragmentation and a lot of that is, let’s be honest, linked to human population growth – increasing land for agricultural needs, whether for commercial or for subsistence farming,” study author Dr. Julian Fennessy told the Guardian. “In some of these countries, though, there is illegal hunting or poaching causing the decline.”
The new species classification may change the lack of attention the long-necked creatures receive because one of the groups may be in trouble: Only 5,000 northern giraffes remain, making it a contender for the endangered species list.
The news of the potential new addition to the endangered species list comes as two veteran endangered animals are removed. Long used as the cuddly face of conservation, the panda was removed from the list this week by the International Union for Conservation of Nature because the population has grown 17 percent from 2004. Several populations of the humpback whale are also set to be removed.