The elegant giraffe…

The elegant giraffe…

The giraffe is one of those species that, because we see them so frequently, become simply run-of-the-mill. We forget, or perhaps never knew, just how interesting they can be. I once asked a ranger at an upmarket lodge what the top three animals are in terms of overseas visitor sighting requests, and the giraffe was up there with the elephant and the lion! So, today’s focus is on these iconic creatures we so often see when game viewing.

There is a lot of controversy around how many giraffe species there actually are. Decisions are made and then reversed just as quickly. The original classification was Giraffa camelopardalis. There currently seem to be four recognised species, including the Northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), the Southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa), the Masai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi) and the Reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata). All of these different species’ coat patterns differ to a greater of lesser degree. Some recognise a further five sub-species. So, we’ll leave that discussion to those more learned than I. Let’s rather focus on interesting facts and behaviours of these tall animals.

Talking of their coats, every giraffe has a unique pattern of spots, much like human fingerprints. These spots are for camouflage, allowing them to blend in with their background. They have a second function, which relates to thermoregulation. Under each patch lies a very sophisticated system of blood vessels. When these reach the pale skin boundary, they are connected by shunts to large veins that encircle the patches and connect to adjacent patch arteries. This design allows large volumes of heated blood to be dumped into the large veins / adjacent cooler patches, thus contributing to the animal’s temperature control!

Giraffes are not as silent as you think they may be. The use various sounds like moans, snores, hisses, and grunts, especially in social interactions. As a rule though, they are generally quiet animals, with much of their communication happening through body language.

A giraffe’s heart is incredibly strong, with a highly specialized cardiovascular system to manage the blood flow to their brains. A giraffe heart weighs on average 11 kilograms. It has two halves, the right and the left, which are each responsible for moving blood around the body. Although this sounds really huge, it is relatively the same ratio to body weight as any other mammal’s heart. 

A giraffe’s neck is too short to reach the ground. So, when a giraffe needs to drink, it must assume a very awkward and uncomfortable stance. They widen their front legs and bend their knees a little, and only then can they lower their head to the water. What happens to their blood pressure when this occurs? Well, their jugular vein has valves that block the return flow of the blood, and the blood vessels have elastic walls that dilate and shrink to manage the change in blood flow. So, both the one-way valves and the elasticity of the veins prevent blood from flowing too quickly to the brain in these circumstances. Isn’t nature’s design wonderful?

The average female giraffe weighs 700-950kg, and the average male 970-1395kg. How tall are they, you may well ask. Well, a 12-year-old giraffe called “Forest” (a resident of Australia’s zoo in Queensland) has apparently been confirmed as the world’s tallest giraffe alive, standing at 5.7m. “George”, a magnificent animal that lived at the Chester Zoo in England in the 1950s, is considered to be the world’s tallest giraffe ever – measuring 5.8 meters. Giraffes can also run very fast—around 56 kilometres per hour for short distances. 

The way a giraffe walks is considered as unique among mammals. The giraffe walks or “paces” by lifting the two limbs on the same side of the body at approximately at the same time (rather than by moving alternate legs on either side in the manner of the horse and other mammals). This is thought to provide stability and balance, considering their long limbs and neck. When giraffes run, they move their forefeet together, then their hind feet, swinging the hind feet up and planting them in front of the forefeet. 

A baby giraffe is called a calf. Adult males are called bulls, and adult females are called cows. A group of giraffes is called a herd. That said, there are many interesting collective nouns applied to giraffes. A group of giraffes is sometimes called a “tower” of giraffes – for obvious reasons. A group of giraffes on the move are known as a “journey of giraffes” whilst a “kaleidoscope” of giraffes perhaps refers to the patterns their coats make when they are close together.

Ossicones are two short “conical protuberances” (or horns) on the head of male and female giraffes (and male okapis).  They are composed of ossified (turned to bone) cartilage covered by skin and hair. Those on females are often thin and tufted with hair, whilst male giraffes have thicker ossicones that become bald on top as a result of frequent necking. 

What is necking? Well, giraffes have horns known as ossicones. To establish dominance or compete for females, males use their ossicones to engage in combat, called “necking.” During these battles, giraffes swing their long necks like a battering ram, using their weight and momentum to land blows with their heads. The impact can be strong enough to knock an opponent off balance or even cause injury.

A last few interesting facts… The giraffe’s tongue is mostly black/blue/purple and can measure up to 51cm. It is also prehensile, meaning it can be used to grasp and manipulate objects – so giraffes can use their tongues to adeptly remove leaves and shoots from even the thorniest of plants. When a giraffe is born, the baby drops about six feet – landing roughly on the ground. Finally, their kick is so powerful, it can be lethal to even the most dangerous of predators.

We hope you found this to be of interest? Happy game viewing!

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team


Giraffe Walking:

Giraffe Running:

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