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Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Oddball Giraffes and Their Odder Ancestors

Giraffes. These ungulates are among the most awkward of the world's collection of hoofed animals. They're immediately distinguishable by the infamously long neck and legs and spotted pattern. Perhaps it is their peculiar appearance that make them so common. Odds are the nearest zoo to you, especially if you're in the US, has at least a couple. Many people are completely unaware that different zoos actually have different subspecies of giraffe. In fact, there are nine subspecies of giraffe, distinguished by the coat pattern.

From left to right:
  • Masai giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi, also less commonly called the Kilimanjaro giraffe is the tallest of all subspecies, males reaching 20ft tall, with several alleged reports of 22ft individuals. Thirteen feet alone is made up from the legs and neck. These giraffes are found in Kenya and Tanzania and are the third most common giraffe in captivity, with 100 individuals.
  • Rothschild's giraffe, G. c. rothschildi, or the Baringo/Ugandan giraffe, is named after Lord Walter Rothschild. They reach the same heights as Masai giraffes and are found only in Kenya and Uganda as well as new country South Sudan. These giraffes, in addition to their spots, can be determined by having five ossicones, the horn-like projections on the giraffe's head (these are not true horns, like the chousingha mentioned in the last post). Only 700 exist in the wild (giraffes being endangered is not often thought of), but they are the 2nd most common in captivity, with 450 Rothschild's giraffes being exhibited.
  • Kordofan giraffe, G. c. antiquorum, is found in Chad, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire is a much better, catchier name). There has been confusion between this subspecies and the West African giraffe, especially when all of the alleged latter kept in zoos turned out to be the former. Sixty-five captive individuals can be found, all in Europe.
  • Angolan giraffe, G. c. angolensis, located in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia, is also called the Namibian giraffe. Despite being the most numerous of all giraffes, with 20,000 in the wild, only a minor fraction (1/1000th) of that number is kept in captivity.
  • West African giraffe, G. c. peralta, or the Nigerian giraffe, can be seen in Senegal, Niger, Benin, Mali, and Nigeria. Their numbers have decreased since World War I, with only 220 individuals in the wild. All of the Kordofan giraffes in captivity were once thought to be this subspecies.
  • Thornicroft's giraffe, G. c. thornicrofti, or the Rhodesian giraffe, is exclusive to Zambia. Named after Harry Scott Thornicroft, only 1,500 individuals remain, with none in captivity.
  • Reticulated giraffe, G. c. reticulata, found in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, also called the Somalian giraffe is arguably one of the most famous giraffe subspecies. Their closely packed polygonal spots are extremely iconic. These giraffes were studied by Darwin to explain their extraneously long necks. Reticulated giraffes readily interbreed with other subspecies, and have been observed chewing on bones from gazelle carcases. They are the commonest giraffes in captivity, with over 450 individuals.
  • South African giraffe, G. c. giraffa, located in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and extreme eastern Botswana. Their rounded/blotched spots often run down to their hooves. Approximately 45 can be found in zoos.
  • Nubian giraffe, G. c. camelopardalis, the nominate subspecies of giraffe found in South Sudan and Ethiopia. It is the most endangered giraffe in the world, with an approximate number of only 250 remaining in the wild. They are also rare in captivity, with a herd of 14 being found only at the Al Ain Zoo in the United Arab Emirates. 
A West African giraffe doing a photoshoot.

To add on to that extremely extensive list, a 2007 study suggests that six subspecies (reticulated, Rothschild's, West African, Thornicroft's, Masai, and Angolan) may actually be separate species altogether. Yikes. Speaking of separate species, there is actually another giraffid that I hope you all know. It's the okapi.

The zebra-donkey-antelope thing.

Okapis, found only in the Ituri rainforest of the DRC, most resemble the primitive giraffids that came before actual giraffes. "Only" 6ft tall, they are a third of the height of the tallest Masai individuals. It is relatively unknown to the general public today, as it has been to both them and the scientific world for centuries, formally described only in 1901. If not looking curious enough, okapis have tongues equally as long as a giraffe's, enabling them to clean their nostrils and even their ears. Only males possess ossicones. And as I said literally four sentences ago, it resembled most primitive giraffids.

And then there were those that it didn't look like at all. Restored by Mark Hallett; scanned and edited from book.

Much like antilocaprids, some giraffes experimented with their "horns" and size (click the image to make the difference more noticeable). From left to right:

  • Prolibytherium, Prolibytherium magnieri, technically a climacoceratid (still in Giraffoidea) was found in Egypt and Libya in the Early Miocene. Resembling a deer as all of the above do, each leaf-shaped ossicone was 14in wide, making an "antlerspan" of nearly 2.5ft. It was small, 6ft long and 5ft tall.
  • Sivatherium, Sivatherium maurusium, an African giraffid with widespread, forward pointing, studded ossicones. Approximately 7ft tall, it may have lived as recently as 8,000ya, as rock paintings from the Sahara resemble this creature. 
  • Sivatherium, Sivatherium giganteum, the Asian species of Sivatherium, with widespread backwards ossicones. It was proportionally stockier than S. maurusium, but at 7ft 4in, was slightly taller. It is unknown if it lived as long as the latter.
  • Climacoceras, Climacoceras gentryi, an East African giraffid with "thorny" crescent-shaped ossicones. It was 5ft tall, and can be distinguished from C. africanus by the ossicones: C. africanus "horns" were similar to plant stems.
  • Giraffokeryx, Giraffokeryx punnjabiensis, resembles the okapi most of all out of this list, but with four ossicones. It is the most widespread of the giraffids picture, found in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Despite its superficial resemblance to the okapi, it is more closely related to the sivatherines.

And then there was also Bramatherium perimense, shown to the left from a crappy cellphone photo (considering my scanner didn't want to work right as I needed to scan this) of a David Peters illustration (yes, the David Peters, before the insane theory-era). As you might be able to tell, it had three ossicones, two that split from the back and were probably adjoined by skin, then one huge central one that forked like a deer's antler. It's probable that these would be highly effective in battle, especially considering that they couldn't duel it out like modern giraffes today (by the process of necking, where they slam their heads into their opponent's neck or body). Other giraffids, such as Samotherium, Palaeotragus, and Helladotherium, looked closer to the okapi.

A giant joins the field.

It seems like many things, giraffes were larger in prehistory, and Giraffa jumae is the nonliving example. Found from Malawi to Chad and possibly Turkey, it was probably both taller and heavier than the modern giraffe.

From mutant moose to odd antelope forms, from giants to pygmies, the giraffes have been around for 27 million years. Their iconic appearance and general friendliness makes them popular with people around the world and makes sure they are well in demand in captivity. Let's hope it stays that way.

Behold the amazing giraffe tongue as you leave.

None of the pictures provided belong to the author, except of the Bramatherium and the prehistoric ensemble, none of which were illustrated by the author.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article. I'm fascinated by giraffes.