Giraffes are best known for their long necks and legs. However, another distinguishing feature of the tallest animal on Earth is, of course, their spots. These spots cover their bodies from head to toe and appear in countless combinations of shapes, patterns and shades. While the patterns certainly look pleasing to the eye, their primary purpose isn’t just makeup. In contrast, giraffe spots serve several important functions that increase the giraffe’s chances of survival. What appears to be a simple splash of color extends beyond the skin. Indeed, the spots of giraffes reveal incredible details of their anatomy, evolution, and social structure.
Why do giraffes have spots?
No two giraffes have the same coat color. In addition, different subspecies of giraffes tend to exhibit different groups of patterns and shades. While controversy continues over the exact number of subspecies of giraffes, there is a consensus of nine recognized subspecies. These include reticulated, Nubian, Angolan, West African, South African, Maasai, Thornycroft, Kordofan, and Rothschild giraffes. Each of these giraffes has distinctive patterns that help distinguish them from other subspecies. For example, Kordofan giraffes have a more irregular pattern of spots. In addition, spots can be found under the hocks and on the inside of the legs. Meanwhile, Nubian giraffes usually have noticeable chestnut-colored patches but a flawless underside. Then there are the Maasai giraffes, which have jagged, star-shaped spots right down to their hooves. Finally, Angolan giraffes have spots on their legs, but not on the face.
For years, scientists have wondered why these patterns are different and what they mean. Now, thanks to recent research and analysis on labeling, we have a better understanding of why these stains exist and what they serve. According to a 2018 study, baby giraffes get their coloration patterns from their mothers. In total, scientists have identified 11 different attributes that can be used to distinguish spots, including size, shape, color, outline, pattern, and distribution. Characteristics such as roundness and smoothness are highly correlated in mother-infant pairs, suggesting that giraffes inherit their spots. While scientists may never know exactly why and how giraffes get their spots, three prevailing theories currently prevail in the conversation. These include spots as camouflage, spots as signs of social inclinations, and spots as temperature regulators. Let’s take a look at each of these functions and see how they help giraffes survive and what can support their development.
Spots like camouflage
In many animals, spots have appeared as a form of camouflage. Patterns such as stripes and spots allow camouflaged animals to blend in with their environment, which can help them avoid detection by the hunter or prey. For example, predators have spots to better track their prey, while prey has spots to hide from predators. Animals have developed unique spots and colors to match their habitat, which explains why there is such a wide variety of patterns. From dark to light and vibrant shades, the animals developed spots to match their habitat, allowing them to survive better in that particular area.
In the case of giraffes, camouflage is the main cause of staining. Their pattern allows them to blend in with the yellow-brown landscape common to the African savannahs. In general, the color of the giraffe’s spots usually matches the color of the vegetation growing in its natural habitat. This suggests that the spots arose in response to environmental stimuli that increased the likelihood of giraffes surviving and giving birth to offspring with similar markings. In addition, the researchers found that some patterns tend to give babies a greater likelihood of survival than others. In particular, calves with larger, irregularly shaped patches were more likely to survive than calves with smaller, more uniform bodies. This choice, based on diversity and uniqueness, probably explains why there are so many different patterns today and why no two giraffes look exactly the same.
Spots as social marks
Another reason giraffes have spots has to do with their role as social markings. Because calves often inherit the image of their mother, this allows mothers to easily identify their offspring in a mixed group. Giraffes live in herds of 10 to 20 individuals, which means that distinctive characteristics play an important role in helping giraffes distinguish one another. The easier it is for a mother to visualize her calf, the easier it is to keep it safe from danger. Imagine if all giraffes had the same pattern, and how difficult it would be for a mother to identify her calves. By developing distinct markings and then passing those markings on to their offspring, giraffe mothers have developed a way to keep track of their young. This adaptation is likely to greatly benefit caring mothers with strong maternal instincts, whose offspring are more likely to grow up to become adults.
Stains as heat regulators
Spots serve not only as camouflage and social signs, but also serve a third, less obvious function. While not obvious, it can also be one of the most important causes of giraffe spots. Anatomical studies of the bodies of giraffes show that they use their spots as a sophisticated method of thermoregulation. In particular, the giraffe’s spots help them dissipate body heat and therefore cool down. Under each patch is a complex system of blood vessels. Each site is surrounded by a large blood vessel, which then merges into many smaller blood vessels below each mark. Giraffes can send blood to a larger blood vessel, which then distributes blood to smaller vessels in the middle of the patch.
This movement of blood releases heat through the spots, allowing each one to act as a heat exchanger. In a way, giraffes have a built-in cooling system that allows them to keep their bodies from overheating. Considering that they live in one of the hottest and driest climates on Earth, this remarkable adaptation makes perfect sense. Giraffes cannot ride in mud or mud to cool off like other animals because of their long legs and general shape. Therefore, they developed this amazing heat reduction system to compensate for this.
What is the most popular pattern among giraffes?
Although all giraffes have unique coloration, each subspecies has certain common features, including the coloration pattern. Among the subspecies of giraffes, the largest population belongs to the Maasai. This would make the Maasai pattern most common among giraffes.