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Baby giraffes inherit their spots from their mothers

You may notice as you grow older that you share certain characteristics with your mother (physical characteristics, we’re definitely not saying you act at all alike). You might have your mom’s nose, or her eye color, or penchant for getting sunburnt way too easily – it’s all part of the traits she passed down to you. And while it may be somewhat frustrating to know she bears responsibility for a few of your physical flaws, at least you can sleep easy knowing giraffes have the same problem.

A new study published in PeerJ has confirmed a 49-year-old hypothesis about how baby giraffes inherit their characteristic spots. The report, published by researchers at Penn State, finds that a giraffe’s spot pattern is passed down from mother to baby, and that the survival of young giraffes is directly related to their spot pattern – which helps 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,” explains first author Derek E. Lee, an associate research professor at Penn State. “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.”

Dr. Anne Innis Dagg was the first giraffe field researcher in Africa, and presented evidence back in 1968 that the shape, number, area, and color of spots in a giraffe’s coat may be heritable. However, her hypothesis came from studying a small zoo population. In this study, the researchers observed wild giraffes and used modern imaging and analysis techniques to confirm this nearly five-decade old hypothesis.

The study also determined that newborn giraffes with larger spots and irregularly shaped spots had better survival rates during their first few months of life. This is likely due to the spots providing better camouflage, but it could also be a result of other survival factors such as temperature regulation or visual communication.

My hope is that other scientists will use the same tools to measure mammal coat patterns to advance our understanding of what these patterns mean,” says Lee. “Quantifying heritability and fitness consequences of variation in coat patterns could help us understand how and why complex coat patterns evolve in wild animals.”

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Derek Lee, Wild Nature Institute/Penn State

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