When scientists first encountered an adult giraffe that was only nine feet tall – about half the average height for the species – the first thing they did was stare in disbelief. The second thing they did was name it after a Lord of the Rings character. As one of the shortest members of a species known for its height, Gimli the giraffe has caused quite a stir since he was first spotted in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park back in 2015. While Gimli’s head, neck, and upper body appear relatively standard in size, his legs are most definitely not, lending him a surreal appearance that the New York Times described best as “like someone had put a giraffe’s head and neck on a horse’s body.”
Unfortunately for Gimli, one case is rarely enough to explain a phenomenon, so the diminutive creature has spent the past five years known to the world only as a particularly strange case study. Then, in 2018, researchers in Namibia discovered an 8.5 foot tall Angolan giraffe named Nigel living on a private farm. With two examples to work with, scientists were able to digitally analyze their bone structures in search of an explanation. What they found was a condition called skeletal dysplasia, also known as dwarfism. While the condition has been found to occur in humans and some domesticated animals like dogs, it is very rarely discovered in wild animals and this is the first time it has ever been documented in giraffes.
Understandably, one of the most common first reactions to seeing short giraffes is to assume that they’re digitally manipulated fakes. They are not. After extensive analysis, scientists have actually developed a relatively complete understanding of how dwarfism affects the little guys. Skeletal dysplasia is a condition that affects bone growth, often causing below average height, and in the case of these two giraffes it appears to have severely shortened the radius and metacarpal bones in their legs.
The giraffe’s primary defenses against predators are running and kicking, both of which prove difficult given their predicament. However, while life is certainly difficult for them, both Gimli and Nigel appear to have lived relatively successful lives. In fact,they are lucky to have lived to be observed at all. More than 50% of all giraffes die before reaching adulthood, due to habitat loss, illegal hunting, and other factors, which could explain why dwarf giraffes have never been observed before.
Scientists had planned to observe both giraffes over the course of their lives to learn more about their condition, but while Nigel has been observed recently Gimli has not been spotted since 2017. Perhaps the orcs finally caught up to him. Nevertheless, scientists have no reason to believe he has come to harm and it is entirely possible he is roaming happily somewhere in the Ugandan wild. Whether dwarfism is a trait that we will soon see emerging in more giraffes remains to be seen, but I for one hope so.