Home Science Mini Giraffes Spotted In Africa For The First Time Ever

Mini Giraffes Spotted In Africa For The First Time Ever

Mini Giraffes Spotted In Africa For The First Time Ever

Two dwarf giraffes in separate populations in Uganda and Namibia have been photographed in the wild by researchers

Two dwarf giraffes have recently been found in Africa as the result of standard photographic surveys used by researchers to track their population dynamics. One dwarf giraffe was found in Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, and the other was found on a private farm in central Namibia. This is the first time that dwarf giraffes have ever been spotted in the wild.

Both giraffes appear to be affected by skeletal dysplasia, a rare collection of genetic disorders that cause dwarfism and other developmental disorders. Skeletal dysplasias cause abnormally shaped bones, especially in the head, spine and long bones of the arms and legs.

“Instances of wild animals with these types of skeletal dysplasias are extraordinarily rare”, said lead author of the study, conservation biologist Michael Brown, a joint postdoctoral fellow with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. Dr Brown has studied the interactions between the population ecology and spatial ecology in giraffes and in Grevy’s zebras for a decade.

“It’s another interesting wrinkle in the unique story of giraffe in these diverse ecosystems”, Dr Brown said.

Giraffe are the tallest animal alive today. Average adult heights range between 4.3–6.1 m (14.1–20 ft) tall, with males being noticeably larger than females. Giraffe are gregarious animals that tend to live in family groups comprised of females and their offspring, in loose aggregations of unrelated bachelor males, or as solitary adult males.

Giraffe are usually found in savannahs and open woodlands rather than in denser forests. They eat leaves, fruits and flowers, which are stripped from tree branches using a long, prehensile purplish-black tongue. Giraffe are ruminants, like cows, which are distant cousins, and will ruminate whilst standing up during the day, or laying down at night.

It was once thought there was just one species of giraffe, but analyses of morphological and DNA data have revealed there could be as many as eight living species and seven extinct species. However, at this time, the most complete molecular evidence suggests there may be four species of giraffe (ref; also read more here).

Counting giraffes

The unexpected discovery of the two dwarf giraffes came during a series of routine photographic surveys. These surveys were designed to cause the least disruption possible to avoid affecting normal giraffe behavior or survival.

These surveys of wild Nubian giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis, were conducted at regular four-month intervals by driving along fixed routes over the entire extent of Murchison Park from July 2014 until March 2019. These survey times correspond to local seasonal transition periods (March, July, and December). Baseline populations of wild Angolan giraffe, Giraffa giraffa angolensis, were estimated on individual private properties in Namibia using targeted photographic surveys.

How many giraffe can Dr Brown and his team photograph in a single day?

“On some of these surveys we will regularly encounter and photograph hundreds of giraffe a day”, Dr Brown said in email.

During these surveys, the right side of each giraffe was photographed so their unique and unchanging coat patterns could be used to identify specific individuals. Because giraffe show conspicuous sexual dimorphism, each individual was also classified by sex and age class (calf: 0–12 months; subadult female: 1–3 years; subadult male: 1–6 years; adult female: 3+ years; adult male: 6+ years) using an assortment of characters including body size and limb proportions.

Dr Brown measured these animals’ proportions using laser digital photogrammetry, a modern adaptation of an old technique that has been around since photography was first invented. Photogrammetry is used to make precise measurements of three-dimensional objects, such as a landscape, from two-dimensional photographs.

Using this technique, Dr Brown measured the length of each giraffe’s neck, upper and lower leg (radius and metacarpal) bones, and ankle (phalanx) bone (Figure 1).

During these surveys, a dwarf male Nubian giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis, was first photographed on 15 December 2015 in Uganda.

“We quite literally did a double take when we saw this unusual giraffe to make sure that our eyes were not deceiving us”, Dr Brown said in email.

This giraffe was then photographed in December 2016 and again in March 2017 (Figure 2B). The researchers named him ‘Gimli’ in honor of the heroic dwarf in JRR Tolkien’s classic tale, The Lord of The Rings. They estimated that Gimli was a juvenile or subadult that was at least 15 months old in March 2017.

The other recently observed dwarf giraffe, also a subadult male, is an Angolan giraffe (Giraffa giraffa angolensis) named ‘Nigel’. This animal was born in 2014 but his unique body size was first noted when he was photographed on 10 May 2018, when he was close to adulthood.

“While the Namibian farmer had spotted Nigel regularly over the years, it was only after our observations that he realised that Nigel was not a juvenile but a fully gown male giraffe,” said study co-author, Emma Wells, a Giraffe Conservation Foundation researcher based in Namibia who photographed Nigel (Figure 2C). “It is mainly in comparison to other giraffe that his difference in stature becomes obvious.”

A side-by-side comparison of Gimli (Uganda) to Nigel (Namibia) reveals they look very different to each other (Figure 2). For example, although his body is normally sized, Gimli’s legs are very short and stubby, whereas Nigel appears to be uniformly small.

“Your intuition is spot on”, Dr Brown agreed in email. “The Ugandan giraffe had shorter metacarpal and radius bones but its neck was normal sized for a subadult giraffe. Conversely, the Namibian giraffe had a shorter metacarpal, radius and neck dimensions than what we would expect for a giraffe of his age.”

Although they look quite different, are Gimli’s and Nigel’s skeletal problems the result of the same deleterious gene variants?

“It’s difficult to say for certain what might be causing these types of skeletal dysplasias in these two giraffe”, Dr Brown replied in email. “There are suites of molecular mechanisms that can result in skeletal dysplasia and how these mechanisms translate to giraffe development is a bit of a mystery. Indeed, there could be different causes in the two different giraffe, especially given the slightly different presentations of the two giraffe.”

Dr Brown also noted that these two dwarf giraffe are not related to each other because they are from different populations comprised of two distinct species that are separated by over 3000 km (1864 miles) — a distance too great for wild giraffe to travel on their own (Figure 3).

Because both dwarf giraffe are males, does this mean that male giraffe are more likely to suffer from skeletal dysplasias?

“As you note, both the giraffe are male but it’s unclear if these cases of dwarfism are sex linked”, Dr Brown said.

How did these developmental mutations arise? Are they the result of inbreeding in small, isolated populations of giraffe?

Giraffe are experiencing a silent extinction

Habitat loss is one of many human-caused threats facing giraffe today. Although giraffe do not compete with cattle, deforestation to create farms and ranches, and for charcoal production, killing for bushmeat markets and for illegal trade in their body parts — and even being hit by cars — all caused a dramatic 40% decline of giraffe numbers in just the past 30 years.

The Giraffe Conservation Foundation estimates there are roughly 111,000 wild giraffe of an as-yet undetermined number of species that are patchily distributed across Africa today. Tragically, people have extirpated wild giraffe from much of their historic range, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal (Figure 3). According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, there now are fewer giraffes alive on the planet than African elephants.

Such dramatic population declines are causing steep declines in these animals’ gene pools, which leads to mating between closely related individuals. Inbreeding, in turn, allows rare and harmful gene variations that are recessive, such as skeletal dysplasia, to be expressed.

“It’s worth noting that the Murchison Falls National Park giraffe population in Uganda experienced a significant population bottleneck in the late 1980s as a result of civil unrest and poaching”, Dr Brown pointed out in email. Gimli was found in Uganda.

“The population has rebounded remarkably since then with current estimates of over 1,500 giraffe, although it’s unclear if there are any lingering impacts of the earlier population bottleneck.”

How have these two dwarf giraffe — especially Gimli, with his stubby legs — survived so long in the wild?

“Long legs are important for giraffe, since running and kicking are two of their most effective anti-predator tactics”, Dr Brown agreed. “In watching these two dwarf giraffe move, it is clear that their gait is different from those of other giraffe in the population.”

“Both dwarf giraffe, however, are subadult, meaning they survived the critical first year of life which is when many giraffes fall victim to predators”, Dr Brown added in email. “It’s worth noting however that the predation rate at these two study sites is thought to be relatively lower than other places in Africa.”

It seems clear that Gimli and Nigel, despite living 3000 km (1864 miles) apart are visible warnings of the declining genetic health in Africa’s wild giraffe populations.

“Giraffe are undergoing a silent extinction in Africa”, said Dr Julian Fennessy, Director and Co-Founder of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. She noted that population monitoring efforts like these conducted by Giraffe Conservation Foundation and its partners in Namibia, Uganda and elsewhere are providing critical information to inform conservation efforts and ensure a future for wild giraffe throughout Africa.

“The fact that this is the first description of dwarf giraffe is just another example of how little we know about these charismatic animals”, Dr Fennessy said.

“There is just so much more to learn about giraffe in Africa and we need to stand tall now to save them before it is too late.”


Michael Butler Brown and Emma Wells (2020). Skeletal dysplasia-like syndromes in wild giraffe, BMC Research Notes 13:569 | doi:10.1186/s13104-020-05403-9

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