Dwarf Giraffes Discovered in the Wild

The two giraffes have much shorter legs than their counterparts.

Dwarf giraffe in Namibia with adult male in March 2018.
Dwarf giraffe in Namibia with adult male in March 2018.

Emma Wells / GCF

Standing up to 20 feet (6 meters) tall, giraffes are known for their towering presence. But researchers recently spotted two separate dwarf giraffes in Namibia and Uganda.

These full-grown animals have much shorter legs than their counterparts. Specifically, they have shorter radius and metacarpal bones compared to giraffes that are the same age.

The giraffes were photographed by researchers with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) who were doing routine surveys to record the population and distribution of the animals throughout Africa. They recorded one in a national park in Uganda, and the other on a private farm in central Namibia.

They used a process called digital photogrammetry to record the giraffe's measurements and compare their limb sizes to those of other giraffes. Researchers published their findings of skeletal dysplasia-like syndrome in the journal BMC Research Notes.

Skeletal dysplasia means having cartilage-related or skeletal disorders that may result in bone development abnormalities. Forms of the disorders have been noted in domesticated and captive animals such as dogs, cows, pigs, rats, and common marmosets, but it's uncommon to observe animals in the wild with skeletal dysplasia, the researchers note.

“Instances of wild animals with these types of skeletal dysplasias are extraordinarily rare,” said lead author Michael Brown, a conservation ecologist and a joint fellow with GCF and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “It’s another interesting wrinkle in the unique story of giraffe in these diverse ecosystems.”

Meet the Giraffes

Gimli is the Nubian giraffe spotted in Uganda. He was first observed by researchers in December 2015, and then again about a year later, and then again in March 2017 when he was about 15 months old.

In the study, researchers point out that the giraffe population in Uganda is now about 1,350 adults, but it experienced a bottleneck in the late 1980s where it declined to only about 78 individuals at its lowest point due to poaching and civil unrest. Earlier research studying genetic diversity suggests that there was little inbreeding. Now the population is rebounding. There were no other giraffes in the area that showed similar dwarf-like characteristics.

The second one, Nigel, is an Angolan giraffe photographed on a private farm in central Namibia first in May 2018 then again in late July 2020. The landowner told researchers the giraffe was born in 2014. When researchers first observed him, Nigel was already 4 years old, an age when male giraffes are nearly mature and are already fully grown.

“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 grown male giraffe,” said co-author Emma Wells, a researcher with GCF. “It is mainly in comparison to other giraffe that his difference in stature becomes obvious.”

Giraffes are classified as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, which counted fewer than 70,000 individuals in 2016.  GCF has a somewhat more optimistic population estimate at approximately 111,000 animals, but cautions the numbers are based on improved data rather than an increase in numbers.

Because their plight doesn't get the attention and scientific study as other higher-profile animals, some conservationists warn that giraffes are undergoing a "silent extinction."

View Article Sources
  1. Brown, Michael Butler, and Emma Wells. "Skeletal Dysplasia-Like Syndromes in Wild Giraffe." BMC Research Notes, vol. 13, no. 1, 2020, doi:10.1186/s13104-020-05403-9

  2. Muller, Z., et al. "Giraffe." IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2016, doi:10.2305/iucn.uk.2016-3.rlts.t9194a136266699.en

  3. "How Many Giraffe are there and are they ‘Endangered’?Giraffe Conservation Foundation.