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By Justin Worland
Updated: May 18, 2016 10:55 AM ET

A difference of as few as 70 genes led giraffes to distinguish themselves from their closest relative by their long necks, according to new research.

Researchers behind the study, published in the journal Nature Communications, sequenced the genomes of two giraffes and one okapi—the giraffe’s closest relative. The development of the long neck likely comes as a result of genetic changes to proteins that control growth and others that control the body and limb development.

These genes also control how the cardiovascular system develops, which further helps explain how giraffes are able to pump blood around the body given their height.

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The research could help further conservation efforts to protect the animal, researchers said. The giraffe population has declined by 40% over the past 15 years, according to a press release.

Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com.

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