A giraffe’s height has always been its defining characteristic, giving it a competitive edge in the wild, so scientists have been stunned to discover two dwarf giraffes on opposite sides of Africa.
The average giraffe grows to between 4.5 and 6 metres, but in 2018, scientists working with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation discovered a 2.6-metre giraffe in Namibia. Three years earlier, they had also found a 2.8-metre giraffe in a Ugandan wildlife park.
"It's fascinating what our researchers out in the field found," Julian Fennessy, co-founder of the foundation, said. "We were very surprised."
They published their findings in the British Medical Journal at the end of last month.
In both cases, the giraffes had the standard long necks but short, stumpy legs, researchers said. Skeletal dysplasia, the medical name for the condition, affects humans and domesticated animals, but the paper said it was rare to see in wild animals.
Footage taken by the foundation showed the Ugandan giraffe standing on thick, muscled legs in the dry savannah of Murchison Falls National Park in northern Uganda, while a taller animal with the usual long, stick-like legs walked behind it.
"Unfortunately there's probably no benefit at all. Giraffes have grown taller to reach the taller trees," Fennessy said. He added that it would most likely be physically impossible for them to breed with their normal-sized counterparts.
Numbers of the world's tallest mammal have declined by some 40 per cent over the past 30 years to around 111,000, so all four species are classified by conservationists as vulnerable.
"It's because of mostly habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, growing human populations, more land being cultivated," Fennessy said. "Combined with a little bit of poaching, climate change".
But conservation efforts have helped numbers start to recover in the past decade, he added.
Additional reporting from Reuters