The mottled spots giraffes are known for aren't random, according to a new study that suggests the patterns are inherited maternally — and that they may impact the chances of a calf surviving its first few months of life.
The roundness and smoothness of a giraffe's spots are inherited through its mother, wildlife biology researchers reported in the academic journal PeerJ last week.
Giraffe coat markings are more complex and variable than the eye suggests: The researchers studied 11 spot attributes in total. The researchers did not document any mother-offspring similarity between the number of spots and their area and perimeter.
The study has produced the first data of its kind. Scientists have previously hypothesized that variation in spot patterns may camouflage newborns against predators, and that the animals' spots are conferred at random. One prominent biologist, Anne Dagg, described similarities between parents and offspring in a zoo population in 1968, but analysis and objective measurements of spot characteristics were lacking in wild giraffes until now.
The research was borne out of curiosity for a definitive answer. "We were inspired by so many people's natural curiosity about giraffe spots and where the patterns come from. It was a consistent theme of question we heard when talking about giraffes," Derek Lee, principal scientist at the Wild Nature Institute and one of the authors of the study, told NPR. "We began looking for answers in the literature and found nobody had measured complex mammal coat patterns like spots."