It turns out that there’s more than one species of giraffes. There are actually four subspecies with genetic differences comparable to the difference between polar bears and brown bears.

The study, available in the journal Current Biology, provided unexpected findings. Apparently, the morphological and coat pattern differences of giraffes are too limited to determine to what subspecies each animal belongs. Besides, Axel Janke, a geneticist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre and Goethe University in Germany, adds that giraffes’ megafauna is overlooked and experts assume them to simply have the same ecological requirements.

The researchers, including ones from the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, examined the DNA of 190 giraffes by collecting skin biopsies. Results show that there are four highly distinct groups of giraffes:

(1) Southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa),

(2) Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi),

(3) Reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata), and

(4) Northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis), which includes the Nubian giraffe (G. c. camelopardalis)

These four subspecies do not mate with each other in the wild.

The findings can have implications to current conservation strategies.  Apparently, giraffes have experienced a rapid decline within the last 30 years, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Species Survival Commission Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group wantsto re-assess their status.

From more than 150,000 individuals, the animals’ population has dropped to fewer than 100,000 in the last three decades. However, the researchers note that research about them is limited compared to other large animals like elephants, rhinoceroses, gorillas and lions.

“With now four distinct species, the conservation status of each of these can be better defined and in turn added to the IUCN Red List,” says Julian Fennessy of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation in Namibia. “Working collaboratively with African governments, the continued support of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and partners can highlight the importance of each of these dwindling species, and hopefully kickstart targeted conservation efforts and internal donor support for their increased protection.”