This June, people around the globe are marking World Giraffe Day, an annual event to recognise the bovine dwellers of the African continent. While these long-necked herbivores remain a firm favourite of the safari, there remains much about the giraffe which is relatively unknown. In order to celebrate our Animal of the Month, we bring you 10 amazing facts about the giraffe.
1. Heady heights
Giraffes are the world’s tallest land mammal, standing on average between 4-6 metres tall. They are also the biggest species of ‘ungulates’, or hooved animals. This is in large part due to their long legs and necks, which extend to around 1.5 metres each.
2. The Camel-Leopard
The modern word giraffe probably stems from the Arabic zarāfa, from the Ethiopian zarat, meaning ‘slender’. But in ancient Greek and archaic English, giraffes were known as ‘camelopards’ (καμηλοπάρδαλις), from the combination of the Greek words for camel and leopard. Giraffes were seen as a mixture of these two animals on account of their camel-like, bovine features and yellow-brown, leopard-like fur.
3. Giraffe Family Tree
There is only one major species of giraffe alive today, but there are actually as many as nine different sub-species’ roaming the African continent:
· West African Giraffe
· Kordofan Girffae
· Nubian Giraffe
· Rothschild’s Giraffe
· Thornicroft’s Giraffe
· Reticulated Giraffe
· Masai Giraffe
· Southern (or Cape) Giraffe
· Anglolan (or Smoky) Giraffe
These variations include differences in colour—from the blonde West African Giraffe to the darker Masai Giraffe—and territorial ranges, from North-West to Southern Africa.
4. Varied Diet
It is a well-known fact that giraffes evolved long necks in order to feed on the highest branches, but this also allows them to feed on a wide range of plants. Giraffes munch on over 100 different species’ of leaves, roots, flowers, and pods, meaning they have one of the most varied diets of all animals.
Like most of us, however, giraffes have their favourite foods—they are most likely to be found snacking on Acacia and Combretum plants.
5. Tongue Twisters
Giraffes didn’t only evolve long necks to reach the juiciest leaves at the top of the tree—they also have incredibly long and powerful tongues. A giraffe’s tongue can extent up to 45cm, easily stripping a tree of its juiciest leaves.
A giraffe’s tongue is also noticeably dark in colour. Some researchers have argued that this is an evolutionary trait to avoid sunburn while feeding on the Savannah.
6. Potential Predators
Despite their large size, giraffes are sometimes predated by other animals. Lions will sometimes hunt these giant creatures, and in Kruger National Park giraffe accounts for an estimated 43% of a lion’s diet. On rare occasions they have also fallen prey to other African creatures such as crocodiles and cheetahs.
Young giraffes are much more susceptible to predation. Smaller carnivores like hyenas can pose a particular threat to giraffe calves, but adults have also been known to use their size and strength to kill predators attempting to hunt them.
7. En Pointe
Giraffes are ‘ungulates’, or hooved animals. Unlike primitive mammalian limbs, which extend into five digits, ungulates have lengthened and compressed their metapodial bones—the long bones at the ends of human hands and feet. This means that they actually walk on tiptoe, much like a ballerina.
8. Need for Speed
A giraffe’s long neck isn’t just for reaching leaves. These creatures have evolved to use their necks for momentum, allowing them to run faster (over 30 miles per hour at their top speeds), propel themselves upwards from a sitting position, and provide balance.
9. Necking and Clubbing
Giraffes also use their long, powerful necks to assert their dominance. Sub-adult male giraffes engage in so-called “necking contests”, in which they intertwine their necks, wrestle, and butt against each other for 30 minutes or more.
These contests allow young males to establish dominance in their cohort’s hierarchy, develop their neck muscles, and hone their jousting skills. Adult males rarely engage in aggression, but when they do they swing their necks violently to deliver resounding blows with their heads, like clubs. Unsurprisingly, giraffes have thick skulls to protect against concussions from such impacts.
While giraffe populations in Eastern and Southern Africa remain stable, and are even growing on privately owned game ranches, populations across West Africa and the northern parts of East Africa have been shrinking for many years.
Giraffes face overhunting and habitat degradation. Trees are chopped down for firewood and to create grazing land for livestock; the size of the animals and the amount of meat they provide results in large-scale poaching; the animal’s distaste for fences makes giraffes targets for farmers looking to protect their livestock.
In the Sahel—a region of land between the Sahara and Sudanian Savanna—giraffe populations have been shrinking for many years. However they remain among the last indigenous large mammals to survive in the area. While other browsers lost out to competition with domestic livestock, the evolutionary traits of the giraffe have allowed these creatures to continue feeding on branches above the heads of these competitors.
Featured image credit: Giraffe herd by Kim Vanderwaal. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.