Everything you need to know about Africa’s giraffes
With their tall golden-maned necks and black-on-fawn coats, giraffes are among the most instantly recognizable inhabitants of the African bush. They are also very intriguing animals, with few close relatives, and any number of unique structural and behavioral quirks. Here, we offer you an introduction to the weird and wonderful ways of the skyscrapers of the animal world.
The giraffe is the world’s tallest land animal
Standing up to 19ft, giraffes are about 50% taller than elephants and three times the height of the average basketball player. Their unique body shape comprises a relatively small torso and an elongated neck and legs (up to 8ft and 6ft long respectively). Despite this, the neck of a giraffe, like that of all other mammals (including humans), possesses just seven vertebrae.
It’s also the world’s heaviest ruminant
Giraffes weigh up to 3,000lb, making them heavier than any other ruminant (a suborder of cud-chewing hoofed herbivores that also includes buffalo, bison, antelope and deer). The only land animals heavier than giraffes are elephants, rhinos and hippos.
Giraffes have the world’s most hardcore cardiovascular system
The giraffe’s gangly neck requires it to generate a gravity-defying blood pressure of 220/180 (double that of the average large mammal) in order for blood to reach the brain. It also a massive heart, weighing up to 20lb.
Giraffe are faster than they look
Giraffes look seriously goofy when they run. Unlike most quadrupeds, they maintain the same motion pattern as when they walk, moving both legs on one side, then both on the other. Combined with their long stride, this creates a strange slow motion effect that is actually quite deceptive, give that a giraffe can run at almost 40mph, only 15% slower than a greyhound.
Giraffes look even stranger when they drink
Giraffes don’t often need to drink, but when they do, it’s a sight to behold. Because its neck is so long, a giraffe needs to spread its legs wide apart, often close to 45°, before lowering its head to the water surface at a similar angle, lifting it up swiftly every so often to swallow.
The name giraffe has an Arabic origin
The jury’s out on what the name giraffe means, as it might derive from any of three different Arabic words. Most likely is zirafah (“tallest”) but other possibilities are ziraafa (“assemblage”, in reference to its patchwork appearance) or Xirapha (“swift walker”). In older English, giraffes were known as the camelopards after the Latin camelopardalis, meaning leopard-like camel. It is still known a kameelperd in Afrikaans, a Dutch-based language spoken widely in South Africa.
The giraffe’s main feeding competitor is elephants
Giraffes feed almost exclusively on high foliage in savannas scattered with Acacia, Commiphora and Terminalia trees. Their only competitor for this canopy-feeder niche is the elephant, which is shorter than an giraffe but can use its trunk to reach above its head. Despite this, giraffes can exploit higher foliage than elephants, partly due to their versatile 18-inch tongues.
They’re not strict vegetarians either
No, giraffes don’t hunt other animals or eat meat. But more than any other herbivore, they’re often seen picking up a bone, and chewing on it like a content dog. This behaviour is called osteophagia (literally, bone-eating) and it is attributed to the high levels of calcium and phosphorus required to maintain a giraffe’s unusually fast rate of growth and high skeleton-to-mass ratio.
Males can become quite violent
Peaceable as they look, giraffes regularly indulge in a unique form of ritualized fighting called necking. Two participants will stand next to each other and take turns to swing their neck like a golf club to clobber their opponent. Between younger males, necking is usually gentle, even playful, and might occasionally be accompanied by sexual arousal and mounting (a common practice between male giraffes). With older males, necking is used to display physical strength and to signal dominance, so it can become very violent and has been known to result in broken bones and even death.
Giraffes aren’t silent
Contrary to popular myth, giraffes are not mute. Though not exactly the most extroverted of creatures, they do occasionally grunt, bleat, snort, coughs, snore and growl. As with elephants, giraffes are thought to communicate at subsonic frequencies inaudible to the human ear.
Giraffes have a relaxed but complex social structure
Giraffes move around in ephemeral, non-territorial herds of between five and 15 animals, though larger aggregations are common in some areas. Most such groupings are sex-segregated, though mixed herds are not uncommon. You might sometimes come across nursery groups comprising up to a dozen youngsters left in the care of one or two adult females. Giraffes are polygamous, with older males generally having reproductive rights over a harem of females. Gestation lasts 14-15 months and results in the birth of a single calf or very occasionally twins. Calves usually stick close to their mother until they are about a year old and large enough to be reasonably safe from predators.
Giraffe are something of an evolutionary throwback
Giraffes are relics of the ancient ruminant family Giraffidae, which colonized Africa’s expanding grasslands 20 million years ago then proliferated into a wide variety of different species and genera. This diversity has declined over the past few million years as the more recently evolved bovids (antelope, cattle and allies) usurped many herbivore niches formally filled by giraffes. The decline was probably exacerbated by the attractiveness of giraffes to hunter-gatherers and the diminishing advantages of an long neck following a trend away from gigantism among African ungulates
Nobody agrees how many giraffe species should be recognized…
Traditionally, giraffes are classified as a single species Giraffa camelopardalis, which is split into nine distinct subspecies. Based on recent DNA research, however, at least three and possibly as many as six species should be recognized. Most authorities have settled on four species: northern giraffe G. camelopardalis (which includes the Rothschild’s giraffe of western Kenya and Uganda), reticulated giraffe G. reticulata, Maasai giraffe G. tippelskirchi and southern giraffe G. giraffa. Of these, the most distinctive and handsome species is undoubtedly the reticulated giraffe, which has neat polygonal spots outlined by bright white lines, and is quite common in Kenya’s Meru National Park, Laikipia Plateau and Samburu-Buffalo Springs.
… and they also have a weird rainforest-dwelling cousin
The closest relative to the giraffe (and only other living member of the Giraffidae) is the okapi Okapia johnstoni, a thick-necked, kudu-sized, chocolate-colored, stripey-buttocked rainforest dweller that eluded western science until 1901. This Endangered oddball is endemic to the Ituri Forest of northeast Congo, but its range reputedly extended into Uganda’s Semliki National Park until the 1970s.
Several giraffe species and subspecies are now Endangered
Between 1985 and 2016, the wild giraffe population plummeted from more than 150,000 individuals to fewer than 100,000, leading to a revision of their IUCN red list status from Lower Risk to Vulnerable. Furthermore, several subspecies, some of which might yet be classified as full species, are now Endangered or Critically Endangered, most notably the West African giraffe of southwest Niger (400 individuals left in the wild) and Thornicroft’s giraffe of eastern Zambia (550 individuals).