Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance logo
San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Library logo

Giraffes (Giraffa spp.) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomy & Nomenclature

Current taxonomy (as of May 2021)

Note: Two new studies indicate there are 4 species and 5 or more subspecies of giraffes (Fennessy et al. 2016; Coimbra et al. 2021). Changes are being evaluated by taxonomic scientists. Muller et al. (2016), who report the most recent IUCN assessment, recognize 1 species and 9 subspecies of giraffe. The below taxonomy reflects Fennessy et al. (2016), with special notes on findings by Coimbra et al. (2021).

  • G. giraffa - southern giraffe
    • G. c. giraffa - South African giraffe
    • G. c. angolensis - Angolan giraffe
  • G. tippelskirchi - Masai giraffe
    • Includes the formerly recognized Thornicroft's giraffe
    • Coimbra et al. (2021) suggest 2 subspecies:
      • G. t. thormicrofti
      • G. t. tippelskirchi
  • G. reticulata - reticulated giraffe
  • G. camelopardalis - northern giraffe
    • G. c. camelopardalis - Nubian giraffe [distinct subspecies]
      • Subsumes the formerly recognized Rothschild's giraffe
    • G. c. antiquorum - Kordofan giraffe
    • G. c. peralta - West African giraffe

Historical taxonomy

  • Nearly 250 years of taxonomic inquiry
  • In the past, one species and nine subspecies of giraffe recognized (Fennessy et al. 2013; IUCN SSC GOSG 2016)
    • Various taxonomic schemes were proposed (reviewed in Brown et al. 2007)
      • Two or four separate species
      • A single species with nine, eight, six, or five subspecies
      • Dagg and Foster (1976) proposed 9 subspecies based on spot pattern, color, and geographic origin
  • Many aspects have been confusing or contradictory (Fennessy et al. 2013; Bercovitch and Deacon 2015)
    • Fennessy et al. (2016) may have quieted the debate for now
    • Bercovitch and Deacon (2015) state the need integrate taxonomic and population assessment data about physical characteristics, head morphology, geographic distribution, genetic profiles, and behavior
  • Taxonomy based on pelage pattern and head morphology, historic or modern, should be treated cautiously due to coat variation and to range overlap, which could result in hybridization (Hassanin et al. 2007)
  • Hybridization between subspecies in the wild occurs infrequently (Kingdon 1979; Brown et al. 2007; Mitchell 2009)
    • Behavioral mechanisms that might explain genetic isolation among populations (Brown et al. 2007)
      • Differences in reproductive timing (may benefit calves or females)
      • Mate selection preferences based on pelage patterns


  • Giraffe, Giraffa
    • From "zarafah" (Arabic), meaning "one who walks swiftly" (Gotch 1995)
  • camelopardalis
    • Assigned by Linnaeus because it was the name given to giraffes by the Romans (Mitchell 2009).
    • From camelus (camel) and pardus (leopard; Latin)
    • Centuries ago, it was thought that giraffes were part camel and part leopard (see illustration, right)
  • Local names

Evolutionary History

Earliest giraffid

  • Palaeotragus from the Miocene of Asia, approximately 20 million years ago
    • Medium-sized, with normal length limbs and neck, and two small, bony horns
    • Appearance similar to modern okapi

Giraffids once very widespread and diverse

  • Fossils found in Greece, Austria, Hungary, the Balkans, Spain, the Middle East, Mongolia, China, Japan, Russia, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Africa
  • Many species had large, stocky bodies and various types of heavy, ornate horn-like protruberances
  • Diversification of extant subspecies of giraffes took place during Late Pleistocene (Hassanin et al. 2007).

Closest living relative

  • Okapi
  • Giraffe and okapi
    • Diverged from a common ancestor an estimated 11.5 mya (Agaba et al. 2016).

Closest relatives to the Giraffidae

  • Cervidae (deer)
  • Antilocapridae (pronghorn)

Cultural History


  • Giraffes: Africa's Gentle Giants - 2016, BBC (UK)/PBS (US)
    • Conservation challenges surrounding giraffes
    • Relocating giraffes to promote survival
    • Biographical narrative of giraffe biologist, Julian Fennessy, Ph.D.
    • Narrated by David Attenborough (UK)/Paul Christie (US)
  • Giraffes: The Forgotten Giants - 2015, CBC (Canada)
    • Giraffe conservation issues
    • Research profiles, including Anne Innis Dagg, "the Jane Goodall of giraffes"
  • Africa: Kalahari - 2013, BBC
    • David Attenborough narrates this journey through the diverse continent of Africa.
    • Giraffes shown in the episode titled Kalahari.
  • Tall Blondes - 2002, PBS
    • Season 21 of the documentary series Nature depicts an episode taking place in Kenya.
    • Viewers witness the birth of a giraffe and relocation of giraffes to a wildlife refuge.

Books: Research/Memoirs

  • Giraffe: Biology, Behaviour and Conservation (Anne Innis Dagg 2014)
  • Zarafa: A Giraffe's True Story, from Deep in Africa to the Heart of Paris (Michael Allin 1998)

Children's Literature

  •  Giraffes (Lucia Raatma 2013)
    • Children's book with important facts about conservation and information on the species.
  • I Am a Little Giraffe (Francois Crozat, 1995)

Cultivating Public Awareness and Appreciation

History (Mitchell 2009)

  • African rock art, Republic of Niger, West Africa (Bradshaw Foundation; Trust for African Rock Art)
    • Engravings/carvings on rock (sandstone)
      • Life-sized, approximately 19 feet high
      • Depicts two giraffes, large male with smaller female behind
      • Site: Dabous, west of Aïr Mountains
        • Date unclear, estimated 7-10,000 BC
        • Prehistoric; probably of the pre-Pastoral Period
    • Other rock art: Image 1, Image 2, Image 3
  • Egyptian artifacts
    • Earliest: 3400 BC
    • Latest: 1225. Wall of the temple of Ramses II.
  • Greeks and Romans
    • Greeks: displayed by Caesar in his 46 BC games
    • Romans: instances of being slain in games or paraded in celebration of military triumphs
    • Not featured in Greek or Roman art (Mitchell 2009; Graham Mitchell, personal communication)
  • Unknown in Western Europe from the time of the Caesars until 1245 AD, when one giraffe was obtained by Frederick II for his zoo.
  • Two individuals sent to Europe during the Renaissance, one to Lorenzo de Medici in 1487 and one to Ferdinand I (date not given)
    • No lasting impact; "It would be another 340 years before a living giraffe was seen in Europe again" (Mitchell 2009).
  • First-ever sightings in the wild by Europeans: 28 November 1663
    • During expedition of the northwest coast of the Cape of Good Hope led by Sergeant Jonas de la Guerre
    • No description given; no specimens appear to have been collected.
    • Evidence of how far south giraffe occurred naturally.
  • Early scientific study of giraffe
    • 1758: Linnaeus publishes a taxonomic evaluation. Places giraffes in the genus Cervus, thinking it was related to deer, judging by the horn-like antlers.
    • 1761 or 1762: The first specimen: A skin from a young giraffe. Obtained after a rest station for the Dutch East India Company at the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, was opened.
    • 1762: French zoologist Marhurin Brisson places giraffes in a new genus, Giraffa, because he suspected the horns to be permanent.
    • 1764: Specimens sent to Leiden University in Holland for study by Swiss-born J.N.S. (Jean) Allamand, Professor of Natural History. Stuffed and exhibited at the University.
      • Particularly interested in whether giraffe shed their horns or not, hoping to settle taxonomic controversy begun by Linnaeus and Brisson (neither had seen a specimen).
      • Start of the scientific study of giraffes
    • 1770: Iconic drawings of giraffes made by Captain Philip Cartert, a British navigator.
    • 1777-1779: Four expeditions to South Africa made by Captain Robert Jacob Gordon and Scottish horticulturalist William Paterson
      • Specimen sent to famous anatomist John Hunter.
        • 1780: Skin and parts of a skeleton prominently displayed in his personal museum. However, not thoroughly studied or described.
        • First specimen of a giraffe seen in England.
      • Gordon sends specimens to Allamand (in Holland)
        • Last specimens sent from southern Africa.
        • Allamand collaborates with Buffon, who incorporates descriptions into his Histoire Naturelle.
    • 1786: First scientific paper on giraffes published by Arnout Vosmaer.
    • Published descriptions draw zoologists, naturalists, and hunters to South Africa and southern Africa
    • 1826: Three live "Nubian" giraffes sent to Europe.
    • 1838 and 1839: Sir Richard Owen of the British Museum of Natural History conducts two authoritative studies of giraffe anatomy and zoology
      • An important stimulus to scientific study of giraffes
    • 1904: Richard Lydekker proposes extensive diversity within the species based on skin markings, ossicones, and georaphical distributions.
      • Modified by Dagg and Foster (1976)

Evolutionary Theory

  • Giraffes become an infamous example when used by Jean Baptiste Lamarck to illustrate how animals adapt to challenges of their environment (Gadjev 2014)
    • Zoological Philosophy, 1809


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: *Artiodactyla (even-toed hoofed animals; includes pigs, sheep goats, cattle, deer)

Suborder: Ruminantia

Family: Giraffidae

Genus: Giraffa


  • G. giraffa - southern giraffe
  • G. tippelskirchi - Masai giraffe
  • G. reticulata - reticulated giraffe
  • G. camelopardalis - northern giraffe


*For description of proposed subspecies, see Taxonomy, as well as Fennessy et al. (2016) and Coimbra et al. (2021).


Describer (Date): Linnaeus (1758)

*Note: New anatomical and DNA evidence on the relationship between Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates) and Cetacea (whales and dolphins) recently led to a merging of the two orders into a new group, Cetartiodactyla (Montgelard, 1997; reviewed in Kulemzina, 2009). As of October 2012, experts had not agreed on whether to define Cetartiodactyla as an official taxonomic order that would replace Artiodactyla and Cetacea. Some continue to list giraffes in the order Artiodactyla (Franklin, 2011) or use the term Cetartiodactyla without defining it as an order (IUCN, 2008).

Early Illustration

Early illustration of "Cmeleopard"


Early illustration of a giraffe (Giraffa sp.), then considered part camel-part leopard.

Plate 49; by Busby TL, Mathews GM, and Perry G. 1811. Arcana, or, The museum of natural history: containing the most recent discovered objects. Biodiversity Heritage Library via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Preserved in Stone

Giraffe rock art, Dabous, Niger

Giraffe rock art at Dabous, Republic of Niger. 7-10,000 BC.

Carving of a 19-foot tall male with smaller female (partially in view), behind.

Image credit: © David Coulson/Trust for African Rock Art. All rights reserved. Used with permission from TARA.

Page Citations

Brown et al. (2007)
Bercovitch and Deacon (2015)
Bradshaw Foundation (website)
Colbert and Morales (1990)
Dagg and Foster (1976)
Fennessy et al. (2013)
Gotch (1995)
Hassanin et al. (2007)
Kingdon (1979, 1997)
Lacky and LaRue (1997)
MacClintock (1973)
Mitchell (2009)
Trust for African Rock Art (website)

SDZWA Library Links