The Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis meaning ‘fast walking camel leopard) is an African even-toed ungulate mammal, the tallest of all land-living animal species.
The giraffe is related to deer and cattle, however, it is placed in a separate family, the Giraffidae, consisting only of the giraffe and its closest relative, the okapi.
The giraffes range extends from Chad to South Africa. Although the Okapi is much shorter than the giraffe, it also has a long neck and eats leaves and both animals have long tongues and skin-covered horns. The giraffes ancestors first appeared in central Asia about 15 million years ago, however, the earliest fossil records of the giraffe itself, from Israel and Africa, date back about 1.5 million years.
The giraffe is the tallest living animal which is instantly recognizable by its exceptionally long neck. Adult males stand 15 – 19 feet (4.6 – 6.0 metres) tall, whereas females are shorter at 13 – 16 feet (4 – 4.8 metres) tall. Adult males weigh between 1,764 – 4,255 pounds (800 – 930 kilograms), while females weigh only 1,213 – 2,601 pounds (550 – 1,180 kilograms). The giraffe has the longest tail of any land mammal. Their tail can grow to be 8 feet (2.4 metres) long, including the tuft on the end.
In addition to its great height, the giraffe is also one of the heaviest land animals. Exceptionally large males may weigh up to 1,900 kilograms (about 4,200 pounds). Female giraffes are smaller, rarely reaching half that weight. Compared to other hoofed mammals the giraffe has a relatively short body, however, its legs are disproportionately long.
A giraffes front legs are about 10% longer than their hind legs, a feature that contributes to the animals steeply sloping back. Mature giraffes have large hooves about the size of dinner plates, around 12 inches wide.
Giraffes can inhabit savannas, grasslands or open woodlands. Giraffes prefer areas enriched with acacia growth (a genus of shrubs and trees). Most giraffes live either in East Africa or in Angola and Zambia in southwestern Africa. Until the middle of the 20th century giraffes were also commonly found in West Africa, south of the Sahara. But populations there have fallen sharply and become increasingly fragmented.
Giraffes live in habitats where the available food varies throughout the year. During the dry season, giraffes eat evergreen leaves, however, once the rainy season begins, they switch to new leaves and stems that sprout on deciduous trees. Also, twigs and branches are pulled into the mouth of the giraffe with their long and dextrous tongues. In the wild giraffes can eat up to 66 kilograms of food daily.
When there is a choice, male and female giraffes feed in different ways. Males concentrate on leaves from the highest branches, while the females arch their necks to eat closer to the ground. Because of this characteristic behaviour, a giraffe can be identified as either male or female from a long distance away simply by its stance while eating. Male giraffes are also more inclined to wander into dense woodland, a habitat that females generally avoid.
Giraffes drink large quantities of water and as a result, they can spend long periods of time in dry, arid areas. When searching for more food they will venture into areas with denser foliage. The giraffe has tough lips to ensure there is no damage to their mouths when chewing at trees and twigs such as thorns.
Giraffes in captivity are generally fed on alfalfa hay and pellets, apples, carrots, bananas and browse (elm and alder are favourites).
Female giraffes associate in groups of a dozen or so members, occasionally including a few younger males. Male giraffes tend to live in bachelor herds, with older males often leading solitary lives. A individual giraffe can join or leave the herd at any time and for no particular reason.
Because giraffes are so widely scattered, it may seem that they do not keep in contact with each other, however, this is not true. A giraffes keen eyesight means they can keep an eye on their neighbours even at a distance.
Female giraffes spend just over half a 24 hour day browsing, male giraffes spend less time doing this – about 43% of the time that the female does. Night is mostly spent lying down ruminating, especially in the hours after dark and before dawn. Male giraffes spend about 22% of the 24 hours walking, compared to 13% for female giraffes. The rest of the time male giraffes are searching for a female giraffe to mate with. Giraffe herds do not have a leader and individual giraffes show no particular preferences for others in the herd. Young giraffes are never left alone, however, they are looked after in a kind of nursery group where the females help look after each others calves (baby giraffes).
Giraffes spend up to half their time feeding and most of the remainder is taken up either by searching for food or slowly digesting what they have eaten. Sometimes giraffes sleep during the daytime, often while standing. Giraffes normally lie down only at night, tucking their feet under the body and usually keeping the head upright. However, when a giraffe is sleeping, something it does only for just a few minutes at a time, it curves its neck around and rests its head on or near its behind.
One of the most fascinating elements of giraffe behaviour is the duel between males fighting for mating partners. Giraffe duels are among the most extraordinary in the animal kingdom. Duels begin when two males approach each other and engage in rubbing and intertwining their necks. This behaviour is known as ‘necking’. It allows the opponents to assess each others size and strength.
Often, necking alone is enough to establish dominance. If not, the rivals begin to exchange blows with their heads, using their short horns to tackle each other.
Each giraffe braces its front legs and swings its head upward and over its shoulder. If a blow lands solidly, the giraffe may stagger under the impact and in rare cases may even collapse onto the ground. More often the contest breaks off after a few minutes and the loser simply walks away.
The Giraffe breeding season can occur at any time during the year. However, births in the wild usually happen during the dry season and births in captivity can happen all year round. Giraffes reach sexual maturity in captivity at around 3 – 4 years old, however, in the wild, males do not usually breed until they are 6 – 7 years old. In contrast to the male breeding age, females must be physically larger to carry offspring.
When male giraffes are ready to breed, they begin the ritual combat over mates. Giraffes are non- territorial and a successful male giraffe will mate with receptive female giraffes whenever and wherever it finds them. Gestation period is usually 13 – 15 months and when a pregnant female giraffe is ready to give birth, she makes her way to a calving area that she will use throughout her life. The moment of birth is dramatic, with the mother giraffe standing on all fours and the calf tumbling onto the ground. Remarkably, the calf is rarely injured by its fall.
Newborn giraffes are often on their feet within 20 minutes and are soon feeding on their mothers milk. Calves can walk about an hour after birth and can run within 24 hours of birth. Giraffe calves are about 2 metres (6 feet) tall at birth and weigh 104 – 154 pounds. Giraffe calves grow about 3 centimetres tall each day during the first week and double their height in their first year.
By the age of one year giraffe calves can measure 10 feet tall. Giraffe calves are weaned at one year and become fully independent by 15 months of age. Female giraffe calves are fully grown by age five and male giraffe calves by the age of seven.
Young giraffes may suckle for up to a year, however, they start to sample plants just a few weeks after birth. Giraffe calves are ready to leave the protection of their mother after 15 – 18 months of development.
Adult giraffes generally have no predators other than lions and humans, as their huge hooves are very effective in defending against predators. Giraffes are more vulnerable when they are lying down or drinking, because this gives lions the opportunity to leap up and seize them by the nose or throat. Newly born calves are at much greater risk. Despite their mothers best efforts to protect them, over 50 percent of all giraffe newborns are killed by hyenas and big cats such as lions and leopards during the first month of their life.In captivity, giraffes have lived over the age of 30 years, however, their maximum life span in the wild is about 25 years.
How does a Giraffe move?
Giraffes have two ways of moving, a loping walk and a gallop. When they walk, the giraffes move both feet on one side of their body in unison, followed by both feet on the other side. When they run, giraffes move the front feet together, then the back feet, swinging the hind feet up and planting them in front of the forefeet. While running, the neck of a giraffe moves backward and forward to keep the animal balanced. Giraffes have a top speed of about 56 kilometres per hour (35 miles per hour), however, because its legs are so long a galloping giraffe does not appear to be going very fast.
Giraffes are not great travelers, despite their long legs. Giraffes cannot walk over swampy ground because their hooves quickly sink and they very rarely wade across rivers. Giraffes on opposite banks of a river may never come into contact, unless the water levels drop.
How does a Giraffe bend down?
For giraffes, bending down is a daily challenge. To reach ground level for example, when drinking a giraffe has to splay its front legs at an angle of almost 45 degrees. A giraffes circulatory system is also specially modified, because the high pressure needed to pump blood up to its head could cause brain damage when the head is lowered. To deal with this problem, giraffes have elastic blood vessels that relieve some of the excess pressure.
Giraffes also have a series of valves in their neck veins that ensure that blood always flows from the head back towards the heart, even when this means going against gravity. When giraffes do bend down to drink at water holes, it is commonly done in pairs. This is so that one giraffe can drink, whilst the other keeps an eye open for predators.
Giraffes are usually silent although they can bellow, grunt or snort when alarmed, as when confronted by lions, and can also moo in distress.
Hold your mouse over the giraffe photo and you may be able to hear a giraffe grunt. (ie only)
Calves (young giraffes) bleat and make a mewing call, cows (female giraffes) seeking lost calves will bellow and courting bulls (male giraffes) may emit a raucous cough. Giraffes also give alarm snorts, whereby moaning, snoring, hissing and flute like sounds have been reported. Giraffes also give out a grunting sound that sounds like a pig.
Giraffes have amazing adaptions that help them with their lifestyle in the wild. Because giraffes grow to a very tall height, it gives them access to a level of foliage beyond reach of all other large browsing animals all except possibly, the elephant. Along with their height, giraffes have an incredible array of adaptations. For example, their skin colouring provides excellent camouflage, as it has many different patches of variable size and colour.
Giraffes skin is very thick, so it provides ample protection and insulation. Also, the giraffe’s long eyelids keep out ants and sense thorns on the branches of the trees from which they browse. The valves in veins of the neck control a huge rush of blood to the head when leaning over; this prevents unconsciousness. There is also a network of capillaries in the brain called the ‘wonder-net’. It acts rather like a shock absorber and is another part of the system that prevents unconsciousness. (Also see ‘Anatomy‘ for more facts about the giraffes neck).
A giraffes tongue is over 18 inches (46 centimetres) long, and the roof of the mouth is grooved to easily strip leaves off branches. Since giraffes are extremely efficient at processing nutrients and liquids from food, they can survive without water for long periods of time. Giraffes ruminate day or night, with periods of sleep in between.
Giraffes also rest with their eyes open, standing or lying for three to five minutes at a time. Throughout the night, a giraffe may deeply sleep for five to 10 minutes lying down, yet they rarely sleep more than 20 minutes total per day.
Giraffe Conservation Status
Like many of Africas large mammals, giraffes have declined in numbers and in range over the last century. At one time, herds of over 100 animals were common in savanna regions across the continent, however, today concentrations like these exist only in East Africa particularly Tanzania Serengeti National Park.
The decline of giraffe populations has largely been due to hunting. In Africa, the giraffe is a traditional source of hide and hair and also of tough but nutritious meat. Hunting of giraffes has not yet had a catastrophic effect, as it has on some of Africas big-game animals, but it is a cause for concern. The natural habitat of the giraffe is also being impacted more and more by human activities, reducing the animals range.
The giraffe is currently a protected species throughout most of its range and is classed as conservation-dependent by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The giraffes prospects for survival are good for those living in national parks and game reserves, but for animals living outside these areas the future is less secure.