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 tip 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.
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..
Though the giraffe is the worlds tallest animal, it is, by mammal standards, remarkably peaceful, with very little territorial drive. Even aggression between adult bulls is 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.
Giraffes have a "fission-fusion" society, that means groups come together and break apart freely, and friendships and alliances are loose and varied.
Because they are always on the move and always eating, even overnight, t was once thought that giraffes never sleep. After lots of observation it was discovered that the giraffe sleeps 1 or 2 hours a day, and usually only a few minutes at a time. Adults generally sleep standing up, while youngsters lie down and rest their head on their rump.
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.
While they are still young, however, giraffe calves may fall prey to any of the large predators on the Savanna. Mothers will try to defend their young, but about half of the baby giraffes born will be lost in the first 6 months.
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