Photographed on a private game reserve in central Namibia, this young Angolan giraffe is the first spotless giraffe recorded in the wild in Africa
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Only a few weeks ago, officials at Brights Zoo in Limestone, Tennessee, announced the birth of a spotless giraffe calf on July 31. That captive-born giraffe was later given the name Kipekee (key pahy KAHY), which means “unique” in Swahili, after a public vote. Kipekee is a reticulated giraffe, Giraffa reticulata, a species that is native to Somalia, southern Ethiopia, and northern Kenya.
Unlike captive-born Kipekee, this newly documented giraffe calf was born in the wild in central Namibia. It was photographed near the Mount Etjo Safari Lodge on a private game reserve by wildlife photographer and field guide writer, Eckart Demasius, according to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), who originally contacted me with this news.
This plain brown giraffe baby, which remains nameless at this moment, is an Angolan giraffe, Giraffa angolensis, which is a different species from Kipekee. The Angolan giraffe, also known as the Namibian giraffe or the smokey giraffe, lives in northern Namibia, southwestern Zambia, Botswana, western Zimbabwe and — thanks to reintroduction efforts just a month or so ago in mid-2023 — a few individuals can once again be seen roaming in Angola.
Plain brown giraffes are quite rare. Previously, there were only two reports in 1972 of plain brown giraffes born in zoos in Japan, long before Kipekee popped up in Tennessee. But this Namibian giraffe calf is special because it is the first all-brown individual recorded in the wild.
Color and spot or stripe pattern anomalies do pop up from time to time, even in wild animals. For example, five years ago, I researched and wrote a piece about a wild zebra foal that was mostly black with white polka-dots instead of stripes that was photographed in the Maasai Mara Wildlife Reserve in Kenya (more here). In that piece, I shared some photographs as well as insights from a scientist who studies the genetic mechanisms that underlie individual appearance. That said, however, the cause for such color and pattern variations is often unknown.
“The lack of spots could be caused by genetic mutations or recessive genotype[s] in one or more genes related to the pattern, but without detailed genetic analysis, these are mere speculations,” said Julian Fennessy, co-founder and Director of Conservation at GCF. Julian Fennessy also serves as the co-chair of the IUCN SSC Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group.
“The Giraffe Conservation Foundation, together with our partner, the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre, has done the most detailed research on giraffe genetics in the wild, but it would be difficult to comment on the specifics of these two giraffe,” Julian Fennessy added in a statement.
“Maybe we do not always need to have explanations for everything,” remarked Stephanie Fennessy, GCF’s Executive Director and co-founder. “Why don’t we simply marvel about the wonders of nature?!”
Well, there is that, but understanding the source of these wonders can often increase one’s ability to marvel at them, or so I think.
I contacted my friend at the Senkenberg, ecological genomicist Axel Janke, who has been studying giraffe for years, and who currently serves as the head of the evolutionary vertebrate genomics department at Senckenberg Research Institute. He graciously granted me a late-night science QandA session for this piece.
I asked: Are either of these plain brown giraffe calves the result of inbreeding?
“No, very likely not,” Professor Janke replied to me in email. “Zoos are mostly very careful to avoid inbreeding for their reputation and for their goal to preserve biodiversity. We would love to get a sample to genome sequence the animal, but I sure a university is doing it already.”
Unlike Kipekee, this wild individual has an unknown family history, so could this animal’s plain brown coat pattern be the result of inbreeding?
“If it is also observed in the wild, it is more evidence for inbreeding not being the cause,” Professor Janke explained. “In over 200 giraffe genomes from individuals all over Africa, we have not observed signs of inbreeding. Even in populations that had been reduced to 40 individuals.” (ref.)
There were about 10,173 mature Angolan giraffes alive in the wild, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) most recently published estimate in 2020. Further, Angolan giraffes’ population is currently expanding, so the IUCN lists them as a species of “Least Concern.”
If this solid brown coat pattern is not the result of inbreeding, what may possibly be the cause?
“Such color morphs can occur spontaneously, likely during the development of the embryo when the genes for the yellow part were for some reason not activated,” Professor Janke replied in email.
“It does not seem to be a heritable trait, or we would see them more often,” Professor Janke added.
Giraffe, like many animals, can show a variety of color morphs, particularly black (melanistic) or white (leucistic).
“Similar but almost pure black giraffe have also been observed,” Professor Janke pointed out.
So-called “black giraffe” are not black, precisely, but they do produce unusual amounts of the dark pigment, melanin, and thus, are referred to as “melanistic.”
Interestingly, it was first thought that giraffe grow darker as they age, but in fact, it has been recently found that color coincides with social position in giraffe society: darker males are the more dominant members of the group.
“There are also almost pure white giraffe, where melanin production was disturbed,” Professor Janke mentioned. “In this case, it is like a mutation, as the entire animal is affected.”
All white animals and those that are abnormally pale are known as “leucistic” because they still have dark eyes and other body parts. Three wild leucistic reticulated giraffe were documented in northeastern Kenya, but tragically, two were killed by poachers in 2020.
Giraffe each have a unique pattern of spots, which makes them individually identifiable.
“This trait helps us greatly in counting them and, with the help of AI programmes, we can determine exact giraffe numbers even for large populations,” Stephanie Fennessy said.
Luckily, wild giraffe without spots are — so far — unique, but could a lack of markings affect either their behaviors or their social relationships with their giraffe familes and communities?
“This is not known,” Professor Janke replied. “[I]t shows how little we know about this fantastic species, despite being tall and not easy to overlook.”
“As with the black or white giraffe, these individuals do quite well in the wild until a trophy hunter comes along and pays the local communities huge sums […] to hunt one of these individuals,” Professor Janke added.
Professor Janke went on to explain that he doesn’t condemn trophy hunting as a practice per se because it provides much-needed income to support development of local impoverished communities, and because it is controlled — unlike poaching.
Giraffe are experiencing a silent extinction
Curiously, these two spotless giraffe calves have not helped the public to become more aware of, or concerned about, the perilous conservation situation for most giraffe species.
“Did you know that there are only about 117,000 giraffe remaining in all of Africa?” Stephanie Fennessy asked me in email. “That means that there is only ONE giraffe for every FOUR African elephant remaining in the wild.”
Research collaborations with GCF have identified at least four living species of giraffe (more here). Other authorities have identified as many as eight distinct species. Of the four (probable) species, three are listed as either Vulnerable or Endangered by IUCN. Further, giraffe have already become extinct in at least seven African nations.
“Giraffe are in trouble and if we don’t act now, our grandchildren might not be able to see any giraffe in the wild when they grow up. That is what really worries me!” Stephanie Fennessy exclaimed. “But the good news is that it is not too late: If we act now, we can all stand tall for giraffe and secure a future for these gentle giants in the wild.”
Part of that conservation effort is to identify precisely how many species of giraffe there are. Professor Janke’s research team, which is based at Goethe University/Senckenberg, is continuing this effort. For example, in 2016, Professor Janke and collaborators identified four living species of giraffe that have been genetically isolated from each other for 1-2 million years (ref), based on analysis of several genes obtained from 150 giraffe. Currently, Professor Janke and collaborators are continuing to pursue this line of research by using whole genome analyses from an even larger sample of giraffe.
“Together with the GCF, we plan to sequence 2000 African giraffes over the next few years to get a complete genetic map of their diversity, and we’d love to analyze any of these color morphs, even if the GCF hasn’t had a chance to sample them,” Professor Janke told me in email.
What will whole genome analyses reveal that analyses of individual genes cannot?
“With the whole genomes, there is not a shred of doubt, showing that we may be underestimating the diversity of life in many species.”
If you wish to help support giraffe research or conservation efforts, you are encouraged to visit the GCF site to either donate or adopt an individual wild giraffe.
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