The giraffe and its closest relative the okapi are the last survivors of the once plentiful Giraffidae family. While the okapi is a solitary, forest dwelling creature rarely seen, the giraffe is a true show stopper, herds of which wander in surprising abundance across the African savanna.
Today the giraffe is the tallest animal on Earth, with males topping out at about 18 feet at the top of the horns (called occicones), and 11 feet at the shoulder. Although no fossil trail exists, it is assumed the giraffe developed its remarkable physique and out-survived its relatives, by reaching for the treetops.
As taller individuals ate leaves and fruits unavailable to shorter individuals, the giraffe thrived, and became more and more specialized. While the 6 to 8 foot long, 600 pound neck is most obvious, the giraffes entire body is a masterpiece of specialization.
Viewed from the side, the giraffes shoulder region is towering, with a highly elongated pectoral girdle which gives the illusion that the front legs are longer than the rear. Front and rear legs are about the same length, however, between 5.5 and 6 feet long.
While the relatively short back has vertebrae of a median size, the vertebrae of the neck, are stretched to about 11 inches long, They still have the standard 7 neck vertebrae found in most mammals, including us, but they are not only elongated, but also articulate far more than ours.
The neck is supported by powerful muscles and reinforced ligaments which anchor to vertebrae between the shoulder blades, and form a hump where the back and neck meet.
The head is refined, streamlined and equipped with an 18 inch long tongue for even further reach.
Both males and females have horns known as "occicones", which are formed from cartilage and covered with skin. Females have thinner occicones, that are tufted with longer hair on top. Males occicones are larger, have knobs on the ends, and become bald on top as they mature.
Though the giraffe is the worlds tallest animal, it is, especially by mammals standards, remarkably peaceful, with very little territorial drive, and aggression between males limited to largely harmless "necking" displays.
Males and females mingle, young are protected by herd members, and individuals take turns looking out for eachother while drinking or napping.
Theirs is also a very quiet life. While some may incorrectly report that giraffes make no sounds at all, they are, in fact, diverse in vocalizations, emitting grunts, snorts and flute-like sounds of different meaning, but infrequently, and at very low volume.
The length between lungs and vocal chords could limit production and volume, but new research has also found that giraffes make sounds we simply can't hear because they are too low a frequency. In 2015, it was discovered and documented that giraffes in zoos hummed to eachother. This humming was only at night, and only in the dark, and far too low for humans to hear. - Amazing!
Giraffes are ruminants, just like cows, and have similar lifestyles of wandering in groups and grazing. But they don't remain in consistent herds. Giraffes have a "fission-fusion" society, that means groups come together and break apart freely, and freindships and alliances are loose and varied.
Like cows, giraffes have multiple stomach chambers and "chew their cud", meaning they regurgitate partially digested food back up their 6 foot long throat, to re-chew it one mouthful at a time.
With this method, they get as much nutrients as they can from the leaves and fruits they consume.
Giraffes are some of the largest land animals, and need up to 70 pounds of food a day to survive. They spend almost all of their time grazing among, tall branches for herbs, vines, flowers and fruits, but will lower their heads and graze off the ground if something is tempting enough.
Because their legs are so long, they must either bend the front legs, or spread them awkwardly wide, especially to drink. This is a vulnerable position for them, and herd members will take turns looking out for predators while others drink. They can go for long periods without water, and regularly go for days without a drink.
The giraffes top lip, and its 18 inch long tongue, are not only prehensile, allowing them to grasp leaves and branches, but are also extraordinarily tough, protecting them from damage as they munch on the leaves from their favorite tree the Acacia - which has 3 inch long thorns! Giraffes have a hard thickness of tissue called the "dental pad" in place of the top front teeth, which they grind their food against.
Giraffes live in very loose groups of 3 to 40 or so, mostly related individuals. They are not territorial, and their social structure is very peaceful and cooperative.
Females share in the raising of young with little "day-care" groups of youngsters called creches, that the mothers will take turns supervising.
Because of their immense size, healthy adult giraffes have little to fear out on the savanna. They are extremely cautious, with excellent hearing and eyesight, and effortlessly swift if they spot danger. But more importantly, a giraffes kick can be lethal to even the largest predator.
Giraffes have been known to kill leopards, hyenas, African wild dogs and adult male lions with a few - and sometimes just one- well-aimed strikes. They can kick with front and rear legs, and are simply too great a risk for even the hungriest on the plains.
Giraffe society is very loose, and varied. It is known as a "fission-fusion" social structure, where groups come together for periods of time, drift apart, and come together again.
Males often travel alone, and tend to have larger territories than females. Females with youngsters, however, usually travel together for safety and convenience, and will take turns watching the babies as they play in little nursery groups called "creches" or "calving pools".
Throughout their lives, males will engage in wrestling bouts known as "necking", where they will stand beside each other, swing their necks wildly, and batter each other with their heavy heads.
The occicones are blunt, however, and these engagements aren't real fights, but rather measures of strength and fitness, that end when the weaker opponent concedes, and rarely result in injury. Often, rather, the combatants will engage in some close cuddling and mutual grooming afterwards, that sometimes even leads to sexual interaction.
Curiously, it has been widely reported that male giraffes engage in more random homosexual activity then just about any other animals on the savanna.
Necking occurs exclusively among males, and has little to do with impressing females. It establishes who among them will have the opportunity to mate with receptive females. It may take years for a young male to gain the respect of the dominant few, and some may never acquire it.
Female giraffes will usually come into estrus during the rainy season. They will pair up and mate with the dominant male of their choice. Males will taste the urine of females coming into season, and can determine their readiness to mate by this method. next: baby giraffe
The Okapi is the only other living member of the family Giraffidae. They have occicones, a long tongue, and "necking" habits like giraffes, but are largely solitary in the wild.
Okapis live in dense rainforests in the Congo region of central Africa, where they existed, undiscovered, until about 1890.
Originally thought to be a species of zebra, they were recognized as a unique species in 1901.
The okapi is dramatically smaller than the giraffe, at only about 5 feet tall at the shoulder, and 450 to 750 pounds. They have a velvety, chocolate brown coat with flashy, cream-colored stripes down the haunches.
Okapis have huge ears, and rely on excellent hearing in their heavily forested home, where their main predator is the leopard.
|Giraffe Facts - animalstats -|
|Africa Asia||savanna||20-25 years||acacai leaves|
|ENEMIES||GENDER DIFFERENCE||AVG. HEIGHT||AVG. WEIGHT|
|lion||males larger||16-18 feet||1800-2400 pounds|
|37 mph||15 months||150 pounds||5.5-6 feet|
|RAISED BY||# OF YOUNG||EYES OPEN||STANDS UP|
|mother||1, rare twins||at birth||30 mins|
|9-12 months||15-18 months||4-6 years||some subspecies|
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