Order Artiodactyla- Even toed ungulates
Family Giraffidae-Giraffes & okapi
Scientific Name: Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata
Description: Giraffes are the tallest land animals in the world, with males reaching heights of 18’ and Females approximately 14’. Average weight is 1,760 pounds, but can range from 1,200-4,200 pounds. Their long neck, body, legs, and most of the head are covered by various shaped rust to brown colored spots on a buff or cream background. Coloration tends to darken with age. Different sub-species have differently shaped patterns, though no two giraffes have identical patterns. The long tail has a dark tuft at the end. Body hair is short. A short mane runs down the back of the neck. Two to four horns (cartilage covered by skin and hair) are found in both sexes, though they seem to grow more slowly in females. Horns are present at birth. The 18” tongue is prehensile and it is generally black to dark brown.
Home Range: Sub-Saharan Africa.
Habitat Type: Dry savannah and open woodland.
Reproduction: Maturity is reached at 3-4 years, but giraffes are not full sized until 5-7 years of age. Males may compete for the right to mate with a female in estrus by “necking.” This fierce looking battle involves the males swinging their heads and necks at each other until one shows submission by withdrawing. Usually, these displays are fairly gentle and result in few injuries. Adult females tend to reproduce every 20-25 months. Gestation lasts from 15-16 months after which one (rarely two) calf is born. Young are born with the mother standing. The baby drops 6 feet to the ground without injury. The calf stands after about 20 minutes (ours take up to an hour) and nurses soon after. The young are 6 feet tall and weigh 100-150 lbs at birth. They may grow four feet in their first year. Calves may be weaned at 9 months of age, but frequently nurse for up to two years. They begin to eat whole leaves at 4 weeks. The mother keeps her calf isolated from other giraffes for the first 8-30 days, after which time the calf may join other young calves in a crèche during the day. The mother returns to nurse her calf several times a day. Giraffes usually live in small herds of 5-20.
Diet in the Wild: Mainly leaves of the acacia, mimosa and wild apricot. Giraffes can reach the highest leaves that other animals cannot, and eat thorny branches by coating the thorns with saliva to protect their mouth and throat.
Diet in the Zoo: Browse, ADF 16, alfalfa, cabbage, lettuce, and bananas.
General Information: Giraffes have an acute sense of smell, hearing, and vision. Lions occasionally take a giraffe by surprise, but a swift kick from the giraffe’s powerful legs can decapitate an adult lion. Giraffes are defenseless when in a deep sleep; however, they only sleep about 5 minutes at a time a few times each day. Most of the time, they doze lightly with their eyes open and the head and neck still erect. True sleep is done lying down with the neck folded against the body. When drinking or eating food on the ground, the giraffe must spread its front legs wide and lower its head, making them vulnerable. Most drinking is done in the dark. Giraffes are capable of going for weeks at a time without water.
Though scientists once believed that giraffes made no sounds, they now have documented several sounds. Giraffes grunt or snort when they are alarmed, mothers call to their babies with a whistle, and calves bleat to attract their mother’s attention.
The extreme height of these animals has led to some amazing physiological adaptations. Giraffes have the same number of vertebrae in their neck as humans (7), but each is much larger. When standing, a giraffe’s brain is 9 feet above its heart, but when the giraffe lowers its head to drink it is 6 feet below the heart. In most animals, this sudden change of 15 feet would cause ruptures in blood vessels and hemorrhaging in the brain, but this is prevented by special elasticized arteries and valves in the neck that prevent changes in blood pressure.
Ancient people believed that giraffes were made from left over parts of camels and leopards (hence the scientific name). Native people in Africa have trapped giraffes for centuries with pits and snares. They use sinews for bowstrings and musical instruments, and the tough hide is used to cover shields. The meat is tough, but flavorful. However, because giraffes do not compete with livestock and wild herbivores for their food, their populations are stable (but reduced).
Predators: Lions are their only natural predator.
National Geographic Book of Mammals. Vol 1. Donald J. Crump, et al. Ed. 1981. National Geographic Society. Pp. 226-230.
Walkers Mammals of the World Volume II. Sixth Edition. Ronald M. Nowak. 1999. Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore, Maryland. Pp. 1086-1090.
Wild Wild World of Animals: Elephants and Other Land Giants. Eleanor Graves, Ed. 1977. Time-Life Films. New York. Pp. 92-100.