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  • Hybridization and Genetic Diversity in Giraffes

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Name:	Low-Res_23 Jan Camera trap Cameroon giraffe Credit Bristol Zoological Society.jpg
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    Camera trap image of Kordofan giraffes in Cameroon (Image Credit: Bristol Zoological Society​)



    In a recent publication in Current Biology, researchers highlight their significant advances in understanding the genetic landscape of giraffes which identifies patterns of evolution and hybridization within this iconic species. This study, part of the African Wildlife Genomics research framework and an associated partner project of the African BioGenome Project, dives deep into the genetic structure of giraffes and reveals a web of evolutionary history far more complex than previously understood.

    The research team, led by Laura D. Bertola and Rasmus Heller from the Department of Biology, utilized advanced genomic techniques to analyze gene flow among giraffe populations. Their findings indicate that giraffes are not just a single species but are comprised of several genetically distinct lineages. Surprisingly, these lineages have experienced significant hybridization events, challenging conventional notions of species and speciation. For instance, the reticulated giraffe, found in regions like Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia, is identified as a hybrid, comprising a 40%-60% mix of ancient northern and southern giraffe lineages.

    Laura D. Bertola shared the unexpected nature of their findings, stating, "When we started getting results from our analyses of gene flow between different giraffe lineages, we had to check twice." The discovery of major hybridization events among giraffes suggests that these lineages, despite being highly genetically differentiated, have retained the ability to interbreed under conducive conditions.

    This revelation has significant implications for conservation strategies and emphasizes the need to extend protection beyond the species level to encompass the rich genetic diversity within and among giraffe lineages. Rasmus Heller highlights the broader biological challenge posed by their findings: "Our findings touch on a very delicate matter in biology, namely that we do not have a universally agreed species concept. Therefore, it can be very difficult to settle how many species there are within a group.”

    The study also brings up the importance of considering the entire complexity of the evolutionary process in conservation efforts. Co-author Yoshan Moodley from the University of Venda in South Africa points out, "Giraffes are such endlessly fascinating animals, and this study confirms just how much genetic variation there is even on small geographical scales. This provides a further incentive for conserving all the different lineages of giraffes, whether they be called species, subspecies, populations, or whatever.”

    As the scientific community continues to explore the genetic intricacies of giraffes, this research underscores the necessity of adopting a more nuanced approach to conservation, one that acknowledges the fluid and interconnected nature of genetic lineages within iconic taxa like giraffes.

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