Giraffes are the tallest animals of all.
They have long legs and long necks.
They eat the leaves of tall trees.
A giraffe has a long tongue to help pick leaves.
Giraffes do not drink much water.
What are they?
Giraffes are tall mammals, with long legs and neck. Males can grow to nearly five and a half metres tall, and females to nearly five metres tall. Giraffes are ungulates, or hoofed animals. There are about 9 different sub-species, or breeds, of giraffe. There are only small differences between them. When giraffes of two different sub-species breed, the young are called hybrids (mixed breeds).
Distribution and Habitat (where they are found)
Giraffes are found in parts of Africa.They live on the savannah, which is the African grasslands, and light woodlands with plenty of acacia trees, which is their preferred food. They do not live in thick forests where it is difficult to see predators such as lions approaching.
Body and Behaviours
Giraffes have horns called ossicones. These are fur-covered bumps on their skulls, unlike the horns of other animals. The ossicones are part of the skull rather than attachments that grow on it. A giraffe’s skull is made of lighter bone than other bones, with air holes so that it looks a bit like pumice stone. If the skull was heavy bone, the giraffe would have difficulty holding it up at the end of the long neck. There are 7 bones in their necks, the same as in ours. Their neck bones are considerably larger and heavier though.
The giraffe’s tough skin has short fur and is blotched in patterns of browns and yellows. Not only do the different subspecies have distinct patterns, no two giraffe have the same pattern. Of all the subspecies, the reticulated giraffes have the clearest, most distinctive blotches.
Giraffes’ long legs mean they take big steps when they walk or run. One step can be about 5 metres long. They can run very fast, reaching speeds of about nearly 60 km per hour. Because of their long legs and short bodies, giraffes move differently from other four legged animals. They move the two legs on one side of the body forward, then the two legs on the other side. This keeps them from tripping over.
Because of their long necks, giraffes have big hearts to pump blood all the way up to the brain. A giraffe heart is the biggest of any animal’s. There are special valves in the neck arteries so that when the giraffe bends its neck down, the blood doesn’t rush to its head, and when the head is raised again, the blood doesn’t rush back down to the heart. Such rapid changes in blood pressure would make a giraffe faint. The giraffe has high blood pressure because the blood circulation has to go 2m higher than the heart to reach the brain. The skin on the legs below the knee is tight, otherwise high blood pressure would cause a giraffe’s ankles to swell.
Although giraffes are peaceful animals, they will defend themselves from lions, leopards and hyenas which attack the young, and sometimes adult giraffes. Giraffes are able to deliver powerful kicks with any of their four, strong, heavy legs, and a well placed kick can kill a lion.
Sometimes male giraffes fight each other to decide which is stronger. They lean their hindquarters against each other for support and swing their necks, using their horns like hammers to hit each other. However, they do not injure each other, and the rather peaceful fight just stops when the point has been proven.
People think giraffes are unable to make sounds, but they can. It’s just that they do not often do it. They can make a moo, bleat or grunt. When alarmed, they snort. When a calf is threatened, its mother can make a very loud noise.
Giraffes rarely sleep – they sleep the least of almost any animal. In fact, they only go into a deep sleep for about 20 minutes each 24 hours, resting their heads on their hindquarters. The rest of the time, they doze now and then, usually standing up.
A giraffe sitting down is easy prey because of the slowness of folding and unfolding its legs as it gets down or up. It has to rock its neck back and forth to help its movement. So giraffes rarely sit on the ground, even when asleep, unless there are other giraffes standing nearby to see and warn of danger.
Giraffes live in groups called herds, although the members of a herd come and go. They don’t stay together all the time.
Giraffes are ruminant herbivores, which means they chew cud like cattle do. They are browsers, or leaf eaters. Their long necks mean they can reach high into trees to eat the leaves. In the savannah, giraffes browse the tree tops and antelopes browse the lower leaves and in this way they do not complete for food in the same habitat.
Giraffes have a 45-50 cm long blue-black tongue that wraps around leaves and picks them from the branch. The long tongue helps them get leaves just out of reach. The dark colour of the tongue means it does not get sunburnt when it is out of the mouth.
Leaves give giraffes most of the moisture they need so that they do not often have to drink water. Water holes are places where predators wait, and it is awkward for a giraffe to lower its head to drink. To do so it has to spread out its front legs wide to be able to get its head down. It is a slow process, done in stages, and if the water’s edge is muddy, the giraffe’s front legs can slip and serious injury can result. With its head down, a giraffe is an easy target for predators, especially as it can’t get up quickly from that position. Therefore, a giraffe only drinks about once a day, up to 40 litres at a time.
Females give birth to a calf about 15months after mating with a male. The mother gives birth standing up, so the calf drops to the ground, about one and a half metres down. It is thought this jolt helps the calf start breathing. A calf is about 2 metres tall at birth, and during its first week it grows about a centimetre a day.
About an hour after birth, the calf can walk. It suckles milk from its mother, but starts nibbling at other food within days.
Conservation Status and Threats
Giraffes as a group are classified as being of Least Concern. Adult giraffes have few enemies, but young calves can be killed by leopards and hyenas. The most serious danger comes from humans who hunt giraffe for their skins. It is against the law to hunt giraffe but some people still do it.
The approximate populations of the subspecies:
Angolan giraffe – 20,000
Kordofan giraffe – 3,000
Masai giraffe – 37,000
Nubian giraffe – 650
Reticulated giraffe – 4,700
Rothschild’s giraffe – 1,100
South African giraffe – 12,000
Thornicroft’s giraffe – 1,000
West African giraffe -300