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Giraffes inherit their spots from their mothers

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Posted October 4, 2018

Giraffes are huge. They are 5-6 meters tall and weigh 800 kg. It is difficult to hide when your head is so much above everyone else. However, giraffes still have some spots that are thought to serve a purpose of camouflage. Now an international team of scientists led by Penn State University confirmed a 49-year-old hypothesis that giraffe babies inherit spot patterns from their mothers.

Spots of baby giraffes and their mothers are very similar. Image credit: Yosri via Wikimedia

So here’s a thing – adult giraffes may be 6 meters tall, but baby ones are usually around 2 meters only. Still taller than an average human, but not big enough to be immune to predators. So it could be that baby giraffes are the ones who need camouflage to protect them. On the other hand, scientists are still not completely sure what is the purpose of giraffe spots in the wild – there are versions that they could have something to do with temperature regulation or allow different individuals to recognize each other. This new study showed that baby giraffes with larger spots and irregularly shaped spots have a better chance of survival during the first few months of life.

Scientists also noticed that there are significantly similar in mothers and calves in terms of circularity and smoothness of the spots. Monica Bond, author of the paper from the University of Zürich, said: “Dr. Anne Innis Dagg, the first giraffe field researcher in Africa, presented evidence in 1968 that the shape, number, area and colour of spots in giraffe coat patterns may be heritable, but her analysis came from a small zoo population”.  This hypothesis was finally confirmed after 49 years using modern imaging and analysis techniques.

Animals feature various patterns and colours in their fur and skin. In fact, a lot of it is still poorly understood – it is difficult to see how some of this camouflage works. However, scientists hope that modern imaging techniques will help them to analyse mammal coat patterns on a completely new level. Interestingly, unlike tigers who have striped skin corresponding with their fur pattern, giraffes have dark grey skin with no spots at all. Despite that the pattern remains the same for the entirety of giraffe’s life.

Giraffes are graceful beautiful animals. They became one of the symbols of Africa and are adored all over the world. Their spots are iconic and it is the feature that allows differentiating separate species.

 

Source: Penn State University

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