Maybe a leopard can’t change its spots, but a giraffe can. Well, sort of.
When we refer to giraffes, we’re actually referring to any of nine giraffe sub-species: Nubian, reticulated, Angolan, Kordofan, Maasai, South African, West African, Rhodesian and Rothschild’s.
Though all the species share the distinctive long necks, ossicones (the horn-like protrusions on the skull), and size, they can all be distinguished by differences in their coat patterns. And though that may seem like a small thing, science says otherwise; populations of different types regularly overlap, but don’t seem to crossbreed, and a 2007 study suggested that the subspecies may in fact no longer be capable of doing so.
Maasai giraffes have the darkest spots (as a group; individuals of any variety may be darker or lighter than expected, as the color of the spots is mostly dependent on the vegetation the animals eat, as well as the age of the animal), with distinctively wavy, ridged edges. They’re also the giraffe with the highest numbers in the wild (around 40,000), meaning you’re most likely to see them on safari in Tanzania.
Reticulated giraffes (another species you might spot in eastern Africa) have large, smooth-edged spots with narrow channels (the name for the creamy area between the spots) between them, giving their coats the look of a perfectly-planned mosaic.
Reticulated giraffes are much more spot than not, with large, “interlocking” spots.
“1993 147-3A Samburu reticulated giraffe” by Dan Lundberg – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1993_147-3A_Samburu_reticulated_giraffe.jpg#mediaviewer/File:1993_147-3A_Samburu_reticulated_giraffe.jpg
Other subspecies may look more or less like either these two “extremes”; a Rothschild’s giraffe (one of the most endangered subspecies, which also turns up occasionally in East Africa), looks very similar to a Maasai giraffe at first glance, but it has distinctive creamy “stockings”; the sub-species can easily be identified by the lack of any markings on the lower half of the leg.
Notice the distinctive “stockings” on this Rothschild’s giraffe
“Rothschilds giraffe at paignton arp”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rothschilds_giraffe_at_paignton_arp.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Rothschilds_giraffe_at_paignton_arp.jpg
But the spots aren’t just a way to tell one variety of giraffe from another; they’re a way for giraffes to tell each other apart!
Like our fingerprints (or a zebra’s stripes), even within a subspecies, each giraffe’s spot pattern is unique. Giraffes use the patterns to recognize who’s in their family group…and who won’t be invited to the reunion.
For all the species, the spots serve as a form of camouflage, helping the creatures blend in with the patterns of light and shadow that their preferred savannah woodlands cast along the ground beneath the trees.
All of which makes the prospect of “spotting” giraffes on safari that much more exciting, no?