I often get asked by guests: why are some giraffes light and why are some so dark? Why are they even patterned the way they are in the first place?
Well, there are many theories as to why this is. Big old bulls are generally darker, and females seldom darken to the same extent. Although there may be environmental factors at play, a large part of a giraffe’s colouration will be genetically determined. Much like I have dark brown hair and some of you may have blonde hair, it’s all to do with our genes.
There have been many studies (done by Derek Lee and his partner Monica Bond in particular) on whether or not the spot pattern or colour is passed down from parents. Many have come to the conclusion that certain characteristics of the spots are inherited and that there may be a link between the spot pattern and a young giraffe’s survival. What really surprised me was that the studies also said that the smoothness and roundness (also known as “tortuousness” which is the outline of the edges of the spots) of the spots are more specifically passed on from the mother to their calves. Calves only suckle from their mother so that’s how most of the research was conducted; by taking photos of both the mother and calf after watching them for a while and figuring out which calf belongs to which female, then using pattern recognition software to analyse this data.
The study shows that the bigger, rounder spots seem to correlate with a higher survival rate for young giraffes.
Some studies say that spots aid significantly in camouflage, breaking up a calf’s outline making it harder for a predator to spot.
The spots also reportedly aid in thermoregulation; patches of darker fur act as thermal windows to release heat or absorb it more quickly, depending on where blood is directed.
There may be other useful benefits that spots provide that we are unaware of. There is still very little known on the exact uses of the patterns of animal coats.
Genetic research is becoming more and more advanced, which I’m sure means that there will be more exciting discoveries to come.
The four classified species of extant giraffe have very different coat patterns, and in fact the tortuousness of their respective spots varies dramatically. If coat patterning does affect survival rates in young giraffes, would a transplanted individual have a significantly lowered chance of survival in an area dominated by a different giraffe species with a different coat pattern?
I don’t know.
The best thing about questions like these is the ten other questions they in turn spawn.
A certain amount of curiosity is necessary to truly enjoy all the bush has to offer, and the simple act of asking “why?” can send you down a wonderful wormhole of discovery.