Species Survival Plan
Young - lion, hyena and leopard
Adult - several lions working together
Leaves, shoots, flowers; acacia leaves are its favorite
Originally Native To
14 - 17 feet
Male 2,400 lb.
Female 1,500 lb.
Light brown to dark chestnut broken up into patches and blotches by a network of light-colored hair; split hooves 12 inches across; tail ends in tuft
Wild 25 years
Captivity 30 years
Form loose groups that may include different sexes and ages
Giraffes are the tallest living land mammals, and although it looks like their hind legs are shorter, all four legs are almost the same length. The scientific name “camelopardalis” originated from an early explorer who thought the giraffe resembled a cross between a camel and a leopard.
The giraffe’s mouth is velvety soft with a hairy upper lip and a snakelike, purplish tongue nearly 18 inches long. The tongue is prehensile and can be wrapped around a single pellet of food or leaf.
Atop their heads are bony knobs, or ossicones, which from birth are cartilage covered with skin and hair. The female has only two, while some bulls have three. The coat pattern helps protect giraffes by making them hard to see when they stand in the shade of trees. Their patterns are as individual as human fingerprints. Giraffes can close their nostrils completely to keep out sand and dust.
Their necks contain seven vertebrae like a human neck. Still, for all its length, a giraffe’s neck is too short to reach the ground. As a result, they have to spread their legs precariously or kneel down on padded knees, which are actually wrists, to take a drink.
Their ability to get that drink and then jerk their heads up to scout for predators without fainting is the result of an awesome circulatory system that has been studied by NASA as a key to preventing blackouts at high altitudes. The complex system of vessels prohibits too much blood flow to the brain when the head is lowered, yet doesn’t allow the blood to accumulate in the feet.
Giraffes walk at a leisurely pace unless disturbed. They walk with both legs on a side moving almost in tandem rather than the diagonal gait of most quadrupeds. This technique keeps its long stilt-like legs from getting entangled with one another. However when they gallop (up to 35 mph), they transfer their feet like rabbits with their hind legs moving at the same time outside of and beyond the two front legs, all the while pumping their necks to maintain speed and balance.
Giraffe fight by charging and swinging their heads at each other as hard as they can. Although violent, these fights do not result in injury because the males’ six-inch “horns” are blunt and covered with skin, while the skin on their necks can be an inch thick.
Their brains are well protected by thick skulls and extensively pocketed with sinuses. However, the skin on their legs is quite thin and it tears easily. Giraffes defend themselves from predators with a powerful kick using the front or hind legs.
Giraffes give birth standing up, and the 100-150-pound baby drops about six feet to the ground. The calf is often up and walking within an hour.
Care of young can be cooperative in nurseries formed by groups of cows. The calves almost double their height in their first year of life.
Giraffes are ruminants, which means they chew their cud and spend most of the hours of each day either devouring leaves of the acacia tree or reliving the experience. One species of acacia owes its name to the giraffe, and some seeds germinate only after passing through the giraffe’s digestive tract.
Giraffes are not mute. They have vocal cords but rarely use them.
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