The giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) is an African even-toed ungulate mammal, the tallest living terrestrial animal and the largest ruminant. Its species name refers to its camel-like appearance and the patches of color on its fur. Its main distinguishing characteristics are its extremely long neck and legs, its horn-like ossicones and its distinctive coat patterns. They stand 16–20 ft tall and weigh an average of 3,500 lbs for males and 1,800 lbs for females. It is classified under the family Giraffidae, along with its closest extant relative, the okapi. The nine subspecies are distinguished by their coat patterns.
The giraffe’s scattered range extends from Chad in the north to South Africa in the south, and from Niger in the west to Somalia in the east. Giraffes usually inhabit savannas, grasslands, and open woodlands. Their primary food source is acacia leaves, which they browse at heights most other herbivores cannot reach. Giraffes are preyed on by lions, and calves are also targeted by leopards, spotted hyenas and wild dogs. Adult giraffes do not have strong social bonds, though they do gather in loose aggregations if they happen to be moving in the same general direction. Males establish social hierarchies through “necking”, which are combat bouts where the neck is used as a weapon. Dominant males gain mating access to females, who bear the sole responsibility for raising the young.
The giraffe has intrigued various cultures, both ancient and modern, for its peculiar appearance, and has often been featured in paintings, books and cartoons. It is classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as Least Concern, but has been extirpated from many parts of its former range, and some subspecies are classified as Endangered.
Male giraffes use their necks as weapons in combat, a behavior known as “necking”. Necking is used to establish dominance and males that win necking bouts have greater reproductive success. This behavior occurs at low or high intensity. In low intensity necking, the combatants rub and lean against each other. The male that can hold itself more erect wins the bout. In high intensity necking, the combatants will spread their front legs and swing their necks at each other, attempting to land blows with their ossicones. The contestants will try to dodge each other’s blows and then get ready to counter. The power of a blow depends on the weight of the skull and the arc of the swing. A necking duel can last more than half an hour, depending on how well matched the combatants are.
Facts & Myths
- Their tongue is 18 inches long.
- Have a four chambered stomach and will regurgitate their food for additional chewing – similarly to a cow.
- Knobs are called ossicones.
- Although rarely heard, giraffes can moo, hiss, roar and whistle to communicate with one another.
- They have the longest tail of any land mammal – up to 8 feet long, including the tuft at the end.
- Ancient Romans and Greeks thought that the Giraffe was a mix between a camel and a leopard. This is where their scientific Genus name of “camelopardalis” comes from.
- Their heart is 2 feet long and weighs about 25 pounds.
- The heart’s muscular walls are several inches thick.
- They have the highest known blood pressure of any mammal in the world – up to 280/180mm Hg when prone at heart level (approximately twice that of an average human).
- Their heart beats up to 170 times/minute.
- Jugular vein contains a series of one way valves that prevent the back flow of blood when the Giraffes head is down to drink water. This prevents the Giraffe from blacking out.
- The heart pumps about 16 gallons of blood/minute.
- Mother giraffes form a type of daycare for their young. One of the females in the herd will stay behind and babysits all of the youngsters while the rest of the females go out foraging for food.
- Despite its extreme length, the giraffes neck is actually too short to reach the ground. As a result, it has to awkwardly spread its front legs or kneel on its front legs in order to reach the ground to drink water.