Giraffes are gentle giants known for their unique appearance and gentle demeanor. As we explore the tallest giraffe facts, we’ll take a closer look at their incredible physical attributes, complex social behaviors, and the challenges they face.
Giraffes are found primarily in the arid regions of Africa and are categorized into four unique species. What makes giraffes particularly interesting is their range of adaptations, from their dexterous tongues to their specialized cardiovascular systems. They’ve also adapted long necks and towering legs to allow them to reach higher foliage.
Read on to learn more about the long-necked wonder of Africa.
Did you know that giraffes are the tallest mammal on Earth? Male giraffes can grow up to 18 feet tall, while females are slightly shorter, 14 feet tall. Baby giraffes are also tall. They’re as tall as an average man.
Their height advantage and 6-foot-long legs mean they can access food sources other herbivores can't reach. This reduces competition and ensures they get the nutrients they need.
Even though giraffes are impressively tall, their height makes it hard to get to water. They must awkwardly spread their legs and lower their necks to drink from the ground. Nevertheless, their height gives them great perception and allows them to spot predators and other dangers from far away4.
In 2016, DNA analysis revealed four distinct giraffe species5: the Northern Giraffe, Southern Giraffe, Reticulated Giraffe, and Masai Giraffe. Prior to this discovery, experts believed that giraffes were a single species with nine subspecies.
The Northern Giraffe is found in East and Central Africa. It has the smallest population among the four giraffe species. Furthermore, It has three subspecies, including the curiously named Rothschild’s Giraffe.
On the other hand, the Southern giraffe, native to Southern Africa, has the largest population and includes two giraffe subspecies.
The Reticulated Giraffe, or Somali Giraffe, mesmerizes onlookers with its vivid polygonal pattern of liver-colored markings and inhabits Eastern Africa. The Masai Giraffe, named for the Maasai people living within its range, sports irregular, jagged-edged spots on its coat and mainly resides in Kenya and Tanzania.
The West African Giraffe, also known as the Niger Giraffe or Nigerian Giraffe, is a subspecies of the giraffe distinguished by its light-colored spots.
Each of these four species shares a common ancestry but has evolved unique coat patterns and adaptations, allowing them to thrive in their specific habitats.
Giraffes have the same number of neck vertebrae as humans. However, each giraffe's cervical vertebrae are significantly elongated, reaching 10 inches long. This allows giraffes to access the upper canopy of trees, feasting on food sources that cannot reach them.
Ball-and-socket joints connect the vertebrae in giraffes, allowing for a wide range of motion while maintaining flexibility in their necks. The evolution of the giraffe’s neck has been a subject of scientific study and debate for many years.
Some researchers attribute the elongation of their necks to competition for food resources, while others propose it could be due to sexual selection.
One of the most interesting giraffe facts is the term “tower,” which refers to a group of giraffes. Giraffes are social animals, and when they gather in groups, their combined heights and long necks create a stunning image that resembles a living skyscraper.
These towers of giraffes are constantly changing, reflecting the social behavior of giraffes who form loose associations without rigid bonds or hierarchies1. By assembling in towers, giraffes maintain a vigilant watch over their surroundings, safeguard their calves, and promote a sense of community.
Did you know the giraffe tongue can measure up to 20 inches in adult individuals? That’s almost 7 times the average human tongue’s length!
A giraffe's tongue is strong and flexible, allowing it to reach high branches and skillfully strip leaves with its dexterous upper lip. It even helps giraffes maneuver around the thorns on their favored acacia trees.
Interestingly, the tongue's dark blue to purple coloring also serves a practical purpose: it may protect the tongue from sunburn as it spends extended periods exposed while feeding.
The tip of the giraffe's tongue is covered in tough bristles, further aiding in plucking leaves from branches. Additionally, giraffes' saliva plays a role in their feeding process, as it contains properties that can help heal minor cuts sustained from thorny branches. This is similar to how antiseptic ointments work for humans.
Giraffes get most of their water from their leafy meals (this eliminates the need to drink from other resources). That’s why giraffes spend a great deal of time eating, and with their unique tongues, giraffes can consume up to 75 pounds of foliage each day.
Giraffes boast unique spotted coats, or pelage, which make them visually striking and serve as a crucial adaptation for their survival. Their intricate patterns, composed of irregular shapes and varying shades of brown, beige, and orange, effectively replicate the dappled sunlight and shadows.
This natural camouflage and disruptive coloration help break up their towering silhouette and make it challenging for predators like lions, hyenas, and African wild dogs to detect them from afar7.
Remarkably, each giraffe's spot pattern is as unique as human fingerprints, enhancing its ability to blend into its surroundings even further. Additionally, the giraffe's coat plays a significant role in thermoregulation, helping them withstand the harsh climate of their native habitats.
The fur within the giraffe’s spots is thicker and darker, offering insulation from both heat and cold, while the lighter areas aid in more efficient heat dissipation.
While giraffes are best known for their incredible height and long necks, another fascinating aspect of their physiology is their cardiovascular system. Giraffes have evolved an incredible cardiovascular system to keep blood flow and pressure in check, especially when they lower their heads to drink or graze.
Giraffes also have the biggest heart among terrestrial animals2, allowing them to pump blood efficiently throughout their bodies, even up their long necks. An adult giraffe heart can weigh up to 11 kilograms (25 pounds) and measures about 60 centimeters (2 feet) long.
Furthermore, their arteries have thick walls, and the elastic blood vessels in the giraffe's neck work together with their powerful hearts, ensuring blood reaches their brains despite gravity's pull.
An essential part of this specialized system is the "Rete Mirabile," a dense web of tiny blood vessels in the giraffe's head. Acting as a pressure regulator, the Rete Mirabile reduces blood flow to the brain when the giraffe bends down, avoiding excessive pressure that might lead to dizziness or even injuries.
In addition, one-way valves in the jugular veins stop blood from flowing back toward the head, maintaining blood pressure stability.
Giraffes exhibit a strong affinity for acacia tree leaves, flowers, and fruits of acacia trees. These trees thrive in the giraffe's natural habitat and offer a rich source of proteins, minerals, and other essential nutrients.
While acacia trees play a pivotal role in the giraffe's diet, these resourceful herbivores don't rely solely on them. In fact, they adapt to consume various types of vegetation based on availability. When resources are scarce in dry seasons, giraffes turn to flowers and fruits, like wild apricots, for additional nourishment.
Their four-chambered stomachs help break down fibrous plant material, ensuring efficient nutrient extraction from their diverse diet.
The hooves of a giraffe have a diameter of 30 centimeters, which is approximately the size of a dinner plate!
Giraffe feet provide stability and support for the giraffe's weight, which can be as much as 1,400 kilograms for a male giraffe. Additionally, they prevent the animal from sinking into loose sand. Giraffes can move quickly and gracefully through their habitats by spreading their weight evenly across a wide surface area.
In addition to their size, giraffe hooves are made of keratin, the same protein found in human hair and nails. This material gives their hooves the strength and durability necessary for long-distance travel in search of food and water.
Interestingly, the giraffe's powerful legs, strong feet, and large hooves also contribute to their impressive defense mechanisms. When faced with predators such as lions and hyenas, giraffes can deliver powerful kicks that are potent enough to kill a lion with a single well-aimed strike.
A giraffe calf is usually born after a notably long gestation period of 14 to 15 months. This extended pregnancy, averaging 453 days, is necessary for the proper development of a baby giraffe. Amazingly, calves can already walk within an hour of birth, a crucial skill for survival in the wild.
As giraffes spend most of their lives standing up, female giraffes also give birth standing up (called birth standing) in the early morning. As the mother stands, the calf experiences a six-foot drop to the ground, breaking the umbilical cord and stimulating its first breath. This gives the calf an entire day to gain strength and adjust to its surroundings before nightfall.
At birth, giraffe calves weigh between 100 and 150 pounds and stand about six feet tall. Staying and walking quickly proves vital in evading predators such as hyenas, lions, and leopards. Furthermore, their mobility enables them to stay close to their mothers, receiving essential care and guidance in their early days.
Giraffes boast unique social structures that distinguish them from other mammals. Their herds, or "towers," are fluid and flexible, as individuals often move between different groups. Adult male giraffes (called bulls), in particular, compete for dominance within these loose associations by engaging in a behavior known as "necking."
This is done to assert authority and increase their chances of attracting mates3. Males use their long necks and heads as weapons, swinging and striking each other.
The intensity of necking varies from gentle rubbing and leaning to aggressive combat. In more violent encounters, the powerful blows can result in bruises, cuts, and even fractures. Despite the risk of injury, necking plays a vital role in giraffe society, enabling males to establish their position in the social hierarchy.
Meanwhile, females and younger males tend to form amicable affiliations, focusing on cooperation and vigilance against predators.
During the intense giraffe mating season, male giraffes compete in fierce battles to establish dominance and secure the chance to mate with female giraffes. They engage in "necking," where they spread their legs for stability and use their powerful necks to deliver forceful, sledgehammer-like blows to their rivals.
Interestingly, necks aren't the only crucial element in these battles; the ossicones, bony bumps on male giraffes' heads, also serve as weapons. Though not true horns, ossicones are covered in skin and fur, thickening and becoming more pronounced with age.
As male giraffes partake in necking, they strategically use their ossicones to deliver powerful strikes. This added layer of strategy demands that giraffes carefully position their heads, maximizing the impact of their blows while reducing the risk of self-injury.
Giraffes display a unique pair of structures on their heads, called ossicones, which resemble horns but differ from traditional horns. Instead of the bony core covered in keratin in typical horns, ossicones consist of hardened cartilage and remain skin-covered throughout the giraffe's life.
In a female giraffe, ossicones are slender and delicate, topped with soft, fluffy tufts of hair. On the other hand, a male giraffe has thicker and sturdier ossicones that often lose their hair coverage on top as they age.
Both male and female giraffes have horns already at birth. These ossicones lie flat and are not attached to the skull to avoid injury at birth. They only fuse with the head later in life.
These gentle giants are not only tall, but they are also fast. They can reach speeds up to 35 miles per hour for short distances or cruise at 10 mph over longer distances.
Their long legs, combined with a specialized gait that simultaneously moves both legs on one side of their body, enable them to quickly cover vast distances. In fact, a single stride from a giraffe can span up to 15 feet. This allows them to outpace other African animals.
While giraffes can't sustain their top speed for long periods, these bursts of speed prove essential for evading predators. Although running at high speeds poses certain risks due to their long necks and the need to maintain balance, giraffes have evolved to maneuver through their environment skillfully. Unlike other animals their size, giraffes can change direction quickly.
Giraffes face numerous threats, leading to their classification as vulnerable and endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. A primary factor contributing to their declining numbers is habitat loss, often driven by human activities like agriculture, mining, and infrastructure development.
As their natural habitats shrink, giraffes struggle to find enough food and face increased competition with other herbivores6. Habitat fragmentation also isolates giraffe populations, reducing genetic diversity and increasing the risk of inbreeding, which can weaken their population.
Climate change exacerbates habitat loss and alters vegetation patterns, presenting further challenges for giraffes in finding suitable food sources. Poaching also poses a significant threat to giraffe survival.
Hunters often target them for their meat, hide, and body parts, with their tails considered a status symbol in some cultures. Additionally, giraffes are susceptible to diseases, such as giraffe skin disease, a parasitic infection causing skin lesions that may impact their overall health.
Over the past three decades, giraffe populations have experienced an estimated 40% decline, emphasizing the urgency of implementing effective conservation measures. By equipping yourself with these important giraffe facts, you can help make a change to protect this lovable creature.
Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with G.
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Isabela is a determined millennial passionate about continuously seeking out ways to make an impact. With a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering with honors, Isabela’s research expertise and interest in artistic works, coupled with a creative mindset, offers readers a fresh take on different environmental, social, and personal development topics.
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