Just a few weeks old and still without a name, a newborn giraffe at a zoo in northeastern Tennessee could rightly be nicknamed “spotless.”
The female giraffe born without its characteristic spots instead boasts a solid brown coat, a phenomenon that hasn’t been observed in any giraffe for more than 50 years. She was born last month at Brights Zoo, a family-owned facility in Limestone, Tennessee. A spotless giraffe was last reported at a Tokyo zoo in 1972.
“The spotless giraffe calf is certainly an interesting case,” and that type of coloring has never been seen in the wild, says Sara Ferguson, a wildlife veterinarian and conservation health coordinator at the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.
The animal’s rare coloring is likely due to some sort of mutation in one or more genes, she says. But there’s no indication of underlying medical issues or that the newborn reticulated giraffe—a subspecies native to eastern Africa—is at a genetic disadvantage.
David Bright, zoo director at the Brights Zoo, says that the baby’s nine-year-old mother, Shenna, had previously birthed three other calves and the trio were all spotted. This latest addition to the zoo’s giraffe family was born at a weight of around 190 pounds, he says, and her veterinary care team concluded “she’s healthy and normal”—though her coloring was a surprise.
A case of spotlessness
Genetics often influence animal coloring in diverse ways. Giraffes with all white coloring have previously been spotted in the wild, including two at a reserve in Kenya in 2017. Those animals had a genetic condition called leucism, which blocks skin cells from producing pigments.
There’s no known explanation for the spotless giraffe in Tennessee beyond that it’s almost certainly due to some kind of genetic mutation or mutations, says Fred Bercovitch, a wildlife conservation biologist at the Anne Innis Dagg Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on giraffe conservation. (Read more: Why these giraffes are completely white.)
The last known case of a spotless giraffe was an animal named Toshiko born in 1972 at Ueno Zoo in Tokyo, Japan, CBS News reported. That giraffe’s mother had birthed another spotless calf several years earlier, according to Bright.
The Brights Zoo, which is home to just over 700 animals of 126 different species, including nine giraffes, asked the public to vote on four potential names for the giraffe calf on its Facebook page, and it accrued over 17,000 votes in the first day, Bright says. There are four candidate names, all in Swahili: Kipekee (unique), Firyali (extraordinary or unusual), Shakiri (she is most beautiful), and Jamelia (one of great beauty).
What’s in a spot?
A 2018 study published in the journal PeerJ found that certain aspects of giraffe spots are passed down from mother to calf, such as how round the spots are and their smoothness (which is technically referred to as “tortuousness”). The study authors also noted that bigger, rounder spots seemed linked to higher survival rates for young giraffes. Still unanswered, however, was if that was possibly due to better camouflage or other unknown factors like enhanced ability to regulate temperature.
Bercovitch, who wasn’t involved in that study, says he wouldn’t be concerned about the spotless giraffe’s health even if the giraffe was born in the wild and away from a zoo’s medical care.
“Among mammals the fur and the hair are the primary features that assist in thermoregulation, not the color of the fur,” he says. “Giraffes can regularly raise their body temperature by a few degrees … they don’t sweat,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons you find giraffes under trees—they want to keep their body temperatures within certain limits.”
Even the lack of camouflage wouldn’t necessarily mean the giraffe would be at a disadvantage in the wild, he says, since the mortality rate for young giraffes from lion predation is already so high.
Ferguson, the wildlife veterinarian says she looks forward to hearing more about the giraffe in the years to come. “What would be cool,” she says, “would be to take an infrared light photo or a thermograph of her to see if the spot pattern is still there but invisible to our eye.”