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The great giraffe debate: how many species are there really?

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

This blog about giraffes was written by Bushwise Professional Field Guide student Emily Cowling. As part of their training, each student submits a researched blog based on a topic of their choice. Opinions contained in these blogs are the student’s.

4 min read

When it comes to Africa or even the world, there are few animals more iconic than the giraffe. While some minds may spring to elephants or lions, it won’t take long for them to arrive back at the giraffe with its elegant morphology, long sloping neck, beautiful patchwork pattern, and slow, measured walk. 

However, for anyone who has observed a giraffe galloping, there is no doubt they can look ungainly and as though they may be about to topple over should they corner too fast. And, as the world’s tallest living land animal, this can seem alarming. Giraffes measure in at somewhere between 3.7 and 5.5 metres meaning you might have to stack three people to be eye to eye with a giraffe! 

One species or four? The ICUN vs Giraffe Conservation Foundation

Giraffe in the bush of Kruger National Park South Africa. 

But you don’t need to stand eye to eye with a giraffe to identify it. I daresay it is one of the most easily recognisable animals and because of this, you could be forgiven for thinking it is just one species. Yet, is this correct? 

The answer seems to be neither yes nor no, or perhaps the answer is yes or no depending on who you want to listen to or who you think is most credible. The IUCN is considered a global authority and if you were to ask them, they would tell you that there is just one species of giraffe. Of course, it is worth noting that this was back in 2018 so perhaps things are changing – even if we have yet to hear about it. But despite this being a global authority, not everyone agrees with them. 

Contrastingly and, confusingly, the Giraffe Conservation Foundation maintains that there are four species, a vast contrast to the ICUN. And then if you were to Google the seemingly simple question, the first answer you would get would give you the same answer as the ICUN. To make this more complicated, if you scroll down and check a few websites, it will quickly become apparent that not everyone agrees. There seems to be a plethora of conflicting opinions. Perhaps in the future, a consensus will be reached but, for now, you will have to pick a side. 

Giraffe’s patchwork pattern: More than just aesthetics

A baby giraffe standing in front of its mother, with her splotched pattern clear in white and orange shades.

Getting back to the fact that they are one of the most easily recognisable animals on the planet, one would be remiss not to mention their spots. This patchwork pattern is not there just to be aesthetically pleasing, it is highly functional. As with many other species, it helps them to camouflage by breaking up their outline making them harder to spot. But there is more to it than just camouflage. It also helps to regulate the giraffe’s temperature – under every dark patch is a system of blood vessels, as the blood flows through them they emit heat which helps to keep the body cool. 

Ossicones: The unique protrusions on a giraffe’s head

An equally interesting, but perhaps less obvious feature when one thinks of a giraffe is the protrusions on their heads. Protrusions? Aren’t they just horns like an impala? – most people will ask. A fair assumption but unfortunately not a correct one. These bumps on their heads are not horns in the sense that many African antelopes have horns. They are actually bony protrusions called ‘ossicones’ and these are directly fused to their skull. 

Myths and legends: The fascinating stories surrounding giraffes

A tower of giraffe stand in a road in a game reserve in southern South Africa.

There is no doubting what fascinating animal giraffes are. So it should come as no surprise that there are dozens of beliefs and myths surrounding them. Many of them revolve around the giraffe’s most amazing and identifiable feature, its long neck. One states that once God had created all of the animals, he spoke to them. As he did, the giraffe stretched high in the air to hear him more clearly, and, as a reward, he was given a long neck to reach the best food on the highest branches.

Another beautiful story is that when the Earth was created all of the animals were given a purpose, all except the giraffe. The giraffe noticed this and was deeply saddened. He had no skills but because of his height, he was always staring up at the sky. One day, the other animals noticed this, and the giraffe was finally given his purpose. According to the myth, the sun was always getting lost and so the giraffe’s purpose became to guide it, making sure it was never lost again. The giraffe did such a good job that the constellation we know as the Southern Cross was rearranged so that it would always point in the direction of the sun. Long ago this constellation was known as the giraffe. 

The moral of the story is quite beautiful, everyone has something to set them apart. Everyone is unique, just like each giraffe and their unique patchwork pattern. Want to learn more about giraffes? Join Bushwise to gain a deeper understanding of these incredible creatures and their place in the animal kingdom.


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