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.
The female is pregnant for about 15 months, and gives birth standing upright.
The newborn hits the ground from a height of 5 or 6 feet, the fall of which breaks the umbilical cord and the natal sac. A newborn baby giraffe stands about 5 or 6 feet at the top of the head, and they can weigh between 140 and up to 200 pounds.
At birth, the occicones are folded back against the head, but spring up in a matter of hours. Baby giraffes often have alot of hair on their occicones, and have amazingly long eyelashes too.
No doubt because of the difficulties of folding up in the womb, the babies neck is not as long, in proportion to the body, as the neck of an adult. Over the first few weeks and months of life, as the baby grows, its neck gets proportionately longer, and at about 4 months old, the youngster is using its long neck to browse for leaves in branches as high as 10 feet.
Giraffes stay with their mothers between 18 months and 2 years, and females in particular, may travel with her from time to time throughout their lives.
Young males may be sexually mature at 6 years old, but will have to wait, usually until they are in their teens, to compete for an opportunity to mate. Males take no part in the rearing of the young, but any groups traveling together will watch for eachother, keep lookout while others drink, and have been known to defend eachother against predators.
The standout feature of the giraffe is, of course, that neck! So what kind of special adaptions must occur in order to make such a unique body function properly?
To start with, the giraffe has a 25 pound heart capable of creating the extreme blood pressure required to pump blood 8 feet up to the brain. But when the giraffe lowers its head to eat or drink, the blood rushing down at such high pressure would cause the blood vessels to burst. Pressure sensors along the neck’s arteries monitor the blood pressure and activate contraction of the artery walls (along with other mechanisms) to counter this increase in pressure.
The blood leaving the giraffe’s heart has to do more than just reach the level of the head, it has to be at a high enough pressure to pass through all the fine capillaries that supply the brain and other organs. To achieve this, the blood leaves the heart at a pressure of 200-300 mm Hg which is probably the highest blood pressure of any living animal.
A giraffe’s blood pressure is so high that it would rupture the blood vessels of any other animal, but the arterial walls are much thicker than in other animals, and their skin is so tightly stretched over the body that it acts almost like an anti-gravity suit, keeping the giraffe safely inside the giraffe! - Amazing!
Current zoological classification states there is just one species of giraffe, but we believe this will change within the next 10 to 12 years.
Presently there are between 8 and 11 subspecies of giraffes recognized by the scientific community, differentiated almost exclusively by coat color and pattern. This number changes and is debated because of a lack of study on the subject, and because color and pattern variations occurring between animals in the same herd, or even the same family, occasionally appear to be those of different subspecies.
It is most likely that there are less than the commonly reported 9 subspecies, but it is also very likely that there is more than 1 species.
Why? Well, one observation of some subspecies as they encounter each other is that interbreeding is not taking place within some of the types. Interbreeding usually takes place within subspecies, and so the reluctance for these herds to intermingle suggests that there may, in fact, be more than one species of giraffe.
More recent DNA research supports this possibility, and some authorities who are studying the herds in the wild are leaning towards the idea that there are actually three to six separate species of giraffe.
We strongly lean towards this theory, but as is often the case with zoological classification, particularly of such iconic mammals as the giraffe, this concept is being hotly disputed, and if any changes are to take place, it will be a number of years before the idea of three or more distinct giraffe species is accepted.
Remember, of course, that it was argued for decades that the Giant Panda was not a bear, before it was finally reclassified as ursine.
From a conservation standpoint, if we lump all giraffes into one species, the critically low numbers of some populations becomes obscured.
Full species status for some subspecies might allow conservationists to focus resources and save them from extinction.
The total number of giraffes in the wild has dropped about 30% in the last decade and hovers at less than 100,000.
Perhaps most telling of the plight of the giraffe is that some subspecies, like the Angolan giraffe, are named for countries or regions they no longer exist in.
The Angolan giraffe, also called the "smoky" giraffe, has numerous thriving herds in Namibia, Zambia and Botswana, but no longer exists in Angola.
With a total population of approx. 15,000 individuals, many roam the Etosha National Park in Namibia, where they are regularly observed and photographed by tourists on safari.
The Angolan is light in color with large, uneven, rectangular spots that are darker in front but fade out down the legs, and often disappear across the rump, giving them their "smoky" look.
A lovely, pale-colored giraffe, the Kordofan has one of the less distinct coat patterns. Sometimes rectangular, sometimes more star-shaped, the spots are usually quite far apart and the pattern never goes below the knee.
These giraffes number only around 2000 individuals. They live in isolated herds throughout Chad, Cameroon, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are areas of Africa that have been war zones in recent years.
Thankfully, nearly half the population resides in Zakouma National Park in Chad, where they enjoy the relative safety of a dedicated conservation effort.
The Maasai giraffe is the most abundant of the subspecies, with an estimated population of just under 37,000. They occur across Kenya and Tanzania along the Maasai Mara river.
Maasai giraffes are tall, with a very dark and distinct pattern of crooked spots that look like vine leaves or distorted stars.
Males in particular, have very dark spots, and like most giraffes, get even darker as they age. The coats are beautiful, and illegal poaching for hides has seen the Maasai population dwindle over the last few decades.
The Nubian giraffe has large, irregular, rectangular spots on a cream-colored body. The pattern does not extend far down the legs, and the belly is also without spots.
Nubian giraffes often have extra ossicones, like the Rothschilds giraffe, and there is speculation that they may be the same subspecies, or perhaps may both belong together as their own species.
The nubian giraffe numbers only about 600 individuals, and are found in South Sudan and West Ethiopia. Many exist under the protection of the Gambella National Park in Ethiopia where they are studied by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.
The spectacular Reticulated giraffe is known by several other names including "Netted" and "Webbed".
Found in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, where it is also known as the Somali giraffe, the Reticulated has a rich, bright pattern of large, smooth, chestnut-colored rectangles against a clear, cream-colored background. The face is also reddish-brown in color, and the tail tends to be quite long.
These giraffes are a prize for poachers and their population has decreased dramatically since the year 2000. Only 8,000 individuals survive in the wild today.
Thankfully, Kenya has cracked down on poaching in recent years, and is working to maintain its current herds.
The Rothschilds giraffe is one of the subspecies that is strongly suspected of being a separate species. These large, robust giraffes live in Kenya and Uganda in numbers of less than 1500.
Rothschilds have large, dark rectangular patches that stop at the knees. The background color is beige to nearly white, and these giraffes frequently have extra occicones.
These are the giraffes seen visiting people at their second floor windows at the famous "Giraffe Manor" in Nairobi.
Giraffe Manor is a sanctuary for Rothschilds giraffes which was developed by Jock and Betty Leslie-Melville in the 1970's, and continues to preserve them to this day with a breeding program and orphanage.
It operates as an amazing hotel and safari park, while doing amazing conservation work, and spreading awareness of the rarity of these animals.
The Southern giraffe, or South African giraffe, is one of the more common subspecies at an estimated population of 17,000. They can be found in areas across the southern half of Africa including Zimbabwe and Botswana.
Efforts are underway to reintroduce both the Southern giraffe and the Angolan giraffe to Mozambique, whose government has implemented numerous conservation efforts for local wildlife.
The Southern giraffe has jagged, star or leaf-shaped spots on a beige background with a reddish tinge. The pattern often covers the legs. The mane is usually red, but the tail tuft is black.
Thornicroft's giraffe is slightly smaller than some other subspecies. It's leaf-shaped pattern is reddish-brown on a light tan background that continues down the legs. The mane is usually red with a black tail tuft. Tails are slightly shorter on this subspecies.
They number approximately 1500 individuals, and are very similar to the Maasai giraffe in appearance, but with a lighter overall color. Some scientists beleive the Maasai and the Thornicrofts belong in their own species together.
These giraffes are isolated from other giraffes, occurring in only one area of Africa, the South Luangwa Valley of Zambia. Most of the population lives within the borders of a game preserve in the valley, where they are largely protected from poachers.
It is believed that there are no examples of Thornicroft's giraffes in captivity anywhere in the world. This subspecies is also called the Rhodesian giraffe, and the Luangwa giraffe.
Strongly considered to be it's own species, the Western giraffe, or West African giraffe, is the rarest of the 9 subspecies.
These giraffes were near extinction in the 1990's when it dwindled down to only 50 individuals, but the government of Niger fought hard to re-establish them, and today, approximately 400 Western giraffes exist in Niger.
The Western giraffe has a distinctive appearance, with large, polygonal spots of a gold or tan color, set wide apart against an ivory background. The pattern does not continue below the knees, and the belly has no spots.
The light color has earned the Western giraffe the nickname "Blonde" giraffe or "White" 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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