The Giraffe is an even-toed ungulate and is the tallest of all animals. Males have been recorded as growing up to 5.5 metres in height and weighing over 1000 kg. Giraffes are characterised by their extremely long neck, long legs and distinctive spotted coat pattern.
The long neck of a giraffe allows them to eat plant species that are can’t be reached by other animals. Despite its great length, the structure of a giraffe’s neck is very similar to that of other mammals. They have the same number of vertebrae as humans (seven), but their neck bones are elongated and are simply a great deal larger than ours.
The hooves of a giraffe can be the size of a dinner plate. They can kick their legs in most directions to defend themselves and their young. Giraffes have enough strength in one kick to shatter the skull of a lion, break its neck or even kill the lion outright.
The scientific name of the giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) refers to its unusual patches of colour on a light background. When the Giraffe was first documented, this coat pattern was thought to resemble that of a leopard. Such an irregular coat pattern is thought to camouflage these creatures under the mottled sunlight of the trees that they are feeding upon.
Giraffes have a long tongue which can measure up to 45cm. This is used to eat the leaves, shoots and buds of many African trees that have long, sharp thorns. Giraffes spend most of their day eating and a fully grown male can eat over 45kg of vegetation in one day.
Female giraffes can become pregnant at five years old. They carry a foetus for up to 15 months and give birth to one calf whilst standing up. Newborn giraffes are about 2 metres tall and can weigh 70 kg.
The giraffe is related to other even-toed ungulates, such as deer and cattle. Giraffes are placed in their own separate family though, with their only living relative – the Okapi.
- Giraffes are one of the most widespread and successful herbivores in Africa. As highly selective feeders, they exist on leaves, shoots of trees and shrubs. Their long flexible tongue and hairy lips enable them to pluck the leaves from between the sharp spikes of the thorny acacia.
- Giraffes can eat more than 45kg of leaves and twigs in one day.
- They are crucial to the survival of the ecosystem, with some species of acacia trees only germinating after the seeds have passed through the giraffe's digestive system.
- Giraffes only drink water every two to three days, but can drink up to 10 gallons (approximately 38 litres) at a time. They gather most of their water from the vegetation that they eat.
Gestation: 13-15 Months (400-465 days)
- Giraffes reach sexual maturity at 3-4 years in captivity. In the wild however, males may not breed until six or seven years of age due to a system of hierarchy amongst the bulls.
- A male giraffe determines if a female is fertile by tasting her urine.
- Giraffes bear one young at a time (twins are rare).
- Calves can be up to 2 metres tall at birth.
- Mothers give birth standing up, with the calf dropping almost two mertes to the ground. This breaks open the sac that encloses the calf and helps assist with initial breathing. The calf must rise to its feet very quickly, or it will fall prey to predators such as lions. Predation accounts for 50-75% of infant mortality amongst giraffes within the first few months.
- For the first four to five months of life, calves congregate in nursery groups called crèches to rest and socialise whilst their mothers forage for food in the distance.
- Giraffes are one of the few ruminants born with horns, called ossicones. These lie flat at birth.
- Males will compete for breeding rights by ‘necking’. This involves swinging their heads at each other and crashing them onto their bodies. Usually these fights are simply tests of strength; however they can be quite violent. To protect their brains whilst necking, male giraffes have five ossicones which form a kind of ‘crash helmet’. Females have only three ossicones. The ossicones of a female are smaller and have a small tuft of fur on top, whilst male ossicones are bare at the top
- Giraffes are threatened by hunters, with their tail prized for good luck bracelets, fly swatters and string for sewing beads. Their coats were used in the past for shield coverings.
- While Giraffes are often too large to be attacked by most predators, their young often fall prey to lions, leopards, hyenas, crocodiles and African Wild Dogs.
- These factors, in combination with the loss of habitat has resulted in Giraffes being listed as extinct in countries such as Burkina Faso, , Eritrea, Guinea, Malawi, Mauritania and Senegal.
- Only 25-50% of Giraffe calves reach adulthood. Those that do have a life expectancy of 20 to 25 years.
Giraffe is believed to have originated from the Arabic word ‘ziraafa’ or zuraph, meaning ‘assemblage’.
- Their heart can weigh up to 12kg (and be the size of a basketball) and pumps around 61 litres of blood a minute.
- To drink water a giraffe must splay its front legs and even bend at the knees. When their head is down, one-way valves help to regulate blood flow in order to prevent brain damage. Due to the length of its neck, a great deal of pressure is needed for blood to reach the brain (double the blood pressure of a large mammal).
- Giraffes have never been seen bathing and cannot swim.
- A long tuft of black hair on giraffes' tails is used effectively as a whisk against tsetse flies
- Giraffes have great eyesight and can see about 2 km away, with the largest eyes of any land mammal. They are also one of the few species of mammal to perceive colour.
- The tongue’s bluish colouration acts like sunscreen, which is highly necessary. They also use their tongue to clean bugs off their face and clean their ears (and pick their nose!)
- Giraffes walk with the limbs on one side of the body lifted at the same time. This gait is called a pace and allows a longer stride which saves steps and energy
- Giraffes have mutually beneficial relationships with a few species of birds, such as the Oxpecker. The birds sit on the giraffe’s backs and eat parasites living in the Giraffes’ coats. This helps giraffes as parasites could weaken them physically and leave them more vulnerable to predators.
Current estimates by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation have the population at less than 80,000 individuals across all subspecies. This is a considerable drop in the last decade and shows that the giraffe is in real danger. Poaching, human population growth, habitat loss, habitat fragmentation and habitat degradation continue to impact on the giraffe’s distribution across the continent.
The giraffe is currently a protected species throughout most of its range and is classed as conservation-dependent by the (IUCN). The giraffe’s prospects for survival are good for those living in national parks and game reserves. Unfortunately, the future for animals living outside these areas is less secure.