Giraffes: Tallest living terres­trial animals

The giraffe is an African mammal and the tallest living terrestrial animal as well as the largest ruminant. Learn more about these fascinating animals in our blog post.

Ann-Kathrin
Ann-Kathrin
Nature
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The giraffe is an African mammal from the order of Artiodactyla. It is the tallest living terrestrial animal in the world.

The word giraffe comes from the Arabic term ‘zarāfa’ and means "the lovely". The Romans called the giraffe ‘camelopardalis’ because it reminded them of a mixture of camel and leopard.

Bulls can grow up to 5,5 m high and weigh up to 900 kg, the shoulder height is between 2,0 and 3,5 m. The cows are a little smaller and lighter. The neck of the giraffe is extremely long, nevertheless, the neck-spinal column, as with almost all mammals, consists of seven neck-vertebrae that are strongly extended, however. The long neck is a challenge for the circulatory system of the giraffe: After all, the brain must be supplied with sufficient blood. Therefore, the heart of the giraffe must be particularly powerful. It can pump 60 litres of blood per minute through the animal’s body, weighs 12 kg and provides a blood pressure three times as high as in humans. The pattern of the fur consists of dark patches that stand out from the lighter ground colour. Depending on the subspecies, the shape and colour of the spots vary. The bottom side is light and unspotted. Both giraffe bulls and cows carry two cone-shaped horns on their head that are covered with hair.

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Giraffes can run fast and reach top speeds of 55 km/h, so they are faster than a racehorse over short distances. They prefer solid ground – swampy areas are avoided; rivers represent insurmountable obstacles for the animals.

The body structure and the physiology allow the giraffe to feed itself: Giraffes are leaf eaters and prefer leaves and shoots from the crown regions of trees, especially umbrella acacias. The giraffe grabs a branch with her tongue, leads it into her mouth and grazes the leaves by pulling her head back. The tongue and lips are designed in such a way that they remain undamaged despite the thorny branches. Every day a giraffe eats about 30 kg of food – a procedure that requires sixteen to twenty hours. Despite the long neck, giraffes are ruminants. The daily fluid requirement is covered for the most part from food; therefore, giraffes can survive for weeks without access to water. If they drink, they must spread their forelegs far to be able to lower their head far enough. They proceed likewise when grazing food like grass from the ground, however, this is done only on rare occasions and under unfavourable circumstances.

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Female giraffes live in loose herds. They usually form herds of 4 to 32 animals, but the composition in the group often changes. Before they are sexually mature, young males form own associations before they become loners. Bulls live only occasionally in herds and are otherwise loners. If two bulls meet, they usually begin a ritualized fight: the animals stand next to each other and hit their head against the neck of the competitor. During the mating season such fights can be more aggressive.

The gestation period of a giraffe lasts 14-15 months. As a rule, only one calf is born. The birth takes place while standing, so that the newborns fall from 2 m height to the ground. Immediately after they are born, giraffes are already approx. 1,8 m tall and weigh around 50 kg. They stand firmly on their feet within an hour and start running after a few hours. However, the calves are united with the herd only after 2 to 3 weeks.

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A calf stays with its mother for about one and a half years. At the age of four it becomes sexually mature, at six it reaches full size. In the wild giraffes can live up to 25 years, in captivity 35 years.

Against carnivores, full-grown giraffes defend themselves with blows of its hind and front-runs, that can be deadly for the aggressor. Therefore, giraffes are attacked only rarely. Young animals, on the other hand, frequently fall victim to lions, leopards, hyenas and wild dogs. Despite their protective mother, only 25-50% of young animals reach adulthood.

Today, giraffes are rarely seen almost everywhere. Only in the states of East Africa and south of the Sahara there are greater populations. There are about 13,000 giraffes in the Serengeti National Park. The IUCN lists the giraffe as "dependent on protective measures". However, some subspecies are threatened with extinction.

By the way: Giraffes spend their whole lives standing. Even rest and sleep phases are committed while standing. Once lying, it is no longer possible for the giraffe to stand up.

Numerous Natucate projects and trips give you the chance to spot these impressive animals in the wild, such as a field guide course in Kenya, a safari in Zambia or a trip into Botswana's Okavango Delta.

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