At six feet tall, giraffes are the tallest land mammals. Males can grow up to 18 feet in height with a neck length of six feet. At birth, a baby giraffe (calf) drops head first to the ground from a height of about six feet, which shocks it to take its first big breath. Newborns are up and walking around after about one hour.
There is only one species of giraffe, with nine subspecies recognised by their different patterns. Their specific name Giraffa camelopardalis roughly means a camel marked like a leopard who walks swiftly. Like camels, giraffes have a (small) hump on their backs and can go without drinking water for long periods due to their succulent diet of Acacia leaves.
Historically, giraffes were thought to be mute. While generally quiet, recent research has shown that they bleat, grunt and snort. They also communicate at an infra-sound level, like elephants and whales.
The Incredible Neck
Giraffes have seven vertebrae - the exact same number that humans have! However, giraffes have incredibly elongated vertebrae stretching their neck to the astounding proportions that we see towering over the savannah.
Although we may assume that the neck has evolved to serve the function of stretching for foliage that is out-of-reach of most other animals, there are various other theories suggesting a collaboration of adaptations. Perhaps it is a badge of "fitness" - those with the longest neck are more likely to carry the very best genes. Or it may even be a handy tool left as a by-product of the male "necking" that can be seen when rival males compete for females. Sir David Attenborough investigates this phenomena in his series Natural Curiosities.
Anatomy of a Large Animal
Giraffes are big hearted creatures, quite literally. They need their 26lb heart and high blood pressure to stop them fainting when they raise their heads from ground level. Conversely, they also have incredibly strong valves in their blood vessels in order to withstand the high blood pressure when lowering their heads to drink.
Their immense size means that giraffes in the wild generally sleep standing up. This serves a practical purpose as it would take too long for them to get back on their feet, due to their incredibly long legs, should a predator approach.
Giraffes spend most of their day eating, needing up to 34 kilograms of food per day to fuel their massive size. They produce thick saliva which coats any thorns in preparation for swallowing. Adult giraffes are too large for most predators but the young can fall prey to lions, leopards and hyenas. Up to half of all giraffe calves never reach adulthood.
Whilst not hunted in large numbers poaching is still a problem for giraffes. Their tail hairs are used to make jewellery and their hide is used to make sandals. In some tribes it is falsely thought that burning the skin of a giraffe can treat nose-bleeds.
- Giraffes have been depicted in African cave paintings and ancient Egyptian art.
- The average lifespan of a giraffe is 25.
- Females give birth to one offspring at a time.
- Pregnancy lasts 15 months.
- Just as with humans fingerprints, giraffes never share the same pattern.