From the “This is probably not a good thing but aren’t they cute?” files comes news out of Africa of the discoveries of two dwarf giraffes – short-legged males half the size of normal giraffes. Conservationists found the first in a national park in Uganda in 2015 and the second on a private farm in Namibia in 2018. Their discoveries have been kept quiet to protect the unusual creatures, but Michael Brown, a conservation science fellow with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute who discovered the Ugandan dwarf, recently let the tiny giraffes out of their big bags with a paper in the journal BMC Research Notes on the condition both suffer from – skeletal dysplasia.
“Skeletal dysplasias, cartilaginous or skeletal disorders that sometimes result in abnormal bone development, are seldom reported in free-ranging wild animals. Here, we use photogrammetry and comparative morphometric analyses to describe cases of abnormal appendicular skeletal proportions of free-ranging giraffe in two geographically distinct taxa: a Nubian giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis) in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda and an Angolan giraffe (Giraffa giraffa angolensis) on a private farm in central Namibia.”
While they’re both giraffes (photos here), Brown points out that they represent different subspecies (there are nine subspecies of giraffes) – the Nubian giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis) is found in Uganda, Kenya, eastern South Sudan and southwestern Ethiopia, while the Angolan giraffe (Giraffa giraffa angolensis) roams northern Namibia, southwestern Zambia, Botswana, and western Zimbabwe. While normally reaching 18.7 ft. (5.7 m) in height, Uganda’s "Gimli" (named for the dwarf in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy – did you really need to be told?) is only 9-foot-4-inches (2.8 m), while Namibia’s Nigel is only 8-1/2 feet tall (2.6). As The New York Times reports, the giraffes have seemingly normal necks but extremely short legs, making them look like normal giraffe bodies on horse legs.
“It’s easy to imagine how this might make them more susceptible to predation since they lack the ability to effectively run and kick, which are two of the giraffe’s most effective anti-predator tactics. Additionally, given the mechanics of giraffe mating, I’d speculate that for both of these giraffes, mating would be physically challenging.”
Cute but not exactly conducive to survival in the wild or creating future generations of Gimli and Nigel juniors, says Dr. Brown. For one thing, since they’re both males, they would have to attempt to mate with females nearly double their height – a feat that would get millions of views on YouTube but not much, if any, success. Besides, giraffes in general aren’t exactly doing well as a species and even the fittest, tallest and fastest are still having a tough time outrunning their biggest enemy – humans.
“Although seldomly observed in wild animals, cases of skeletal dysplasia in captive animals have been associated with inbreeding and a lack of genetic diversity.”
Brown and his colleagues could not determine the cause of Gimli’s and Nigel’s dwarfism, so they’ve been trying to monitor them to look for clues. That has proven to be difficult – it’s tough to track little giraffes. While Nigel was seen in July 2020, Gimli has been missing since March 2017. Brown hopes that both giraffes will show up again soon so he can “get some interesting stories and neat little wrinkles about how animals that have these types of conditions cope with changing environments.”
Let’s hope they’re not just coping but thriving and that it’s not our environment itself that caused their skeletal dysplasia.