Some features of a giraffe’s spot pattern are passed on from mother to baby, according to a new study published October 2, 2018 in the peer-reviewed journal PeerJ. The study also suggests that survival of young giraffes is related to spot pattern, which might help provide camouflage from predators.
Giraffe spot patterns are complex and can be quite different among individuals, but we don’t really know their purpose in the wild. Complex markings can help animals evade predators, regulate their temperature, or recognize family or individuals, all of which can affect their ability to survive and reproduce.
In this study, we analyzed survival records and photos of spots of Masai giraffes, and show that spot patterns do affect juvenile survival and are heritable — they are passed from mom to baby.
Giraffe skin color is uniformly dark gray, but their spots vary in both color and shape, ranging from nearly round with very smooth edges to elliptical with jagged or lobed edges. An animal’s spot patterns don’t change as it ages, which allows researchers to identify individuals based on their unique patterns.
This study revealed that newborn giraffes with larger spots and irregularly-shaped spots had increased survival during the first few months of life. This could be because these young giraffes are better camouflaged, say the researchers, but it also could be related to other survival-enhancing factors, such as temperature regulation or visual communication.
The study found that in two of 11 spot traits measured, circularity — how close the spot is to a perfect circle — and solidity — how smooth and complete the edges are — were significantly similar in mothers and calves. This suggests that these traits are inherited by the calf.
Bottom line: A new study says baby giraffes inherit their spot pattern from their mothers.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.