Lanky, awkward, affectionate, and endearing… you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’s not intrigued by Giraffes. These evolutionary marvels, which get their name from the Arabic word Zarafa (“one who walks swiftly”), are statuesque wonders of elegant beauty.
Native to Africa, Giraffes roam throughout the continent’s sub-Saharan regions. Giraffe habitat primarily consists of open savannahs and grasslands where they can wander around freely, peering out into the distance to see if any predators are lurking nearby.
As a herd, these herbivores migrate to areas rich in shrubs and deciduous trees. The climate they live in is very warm, experiencing dry and wet seasons. Giraffes adapt to these changes by being able to consume a variety of different leaves and twigs (but Acacias often seem to be their favorite).
Sadly, their numbers are declining fast due to poaching and habitat loss, with the Giraffe population in Africa dropping by 40%. They’re also preyed upon by Lions, Hyenas, Leopards, and African Wild Dogs, with only about 20% of all baby Giraffes making it to adulthood.
Giraffes were recently added to the IUCN’s Endangered Species List, with several subspecies currently listed as critically endangered. So here’s a look at 50 fascinating facts about Giraffes, including the most common subspecies, their diets, and what’s being done to save them.
READ MORE: Animals in Kenya (A Guide to 40 Species)
- Basic Giraffe Facts
- Giraffe Neck & Body Facts
- Giraffe Mating & Gestation
- Giraffe Diet
- Masai Giraffe
- Reticulated Giraffe
- Rothschild’s Giraffe
- Why are Giraffes Endangered?
- Giraffe Conservation
- Fun Giraffe Facts
BASIC GIRAFFE FACTS
1. Though once believed to be a single species, four distinct Giraffe species are now recognized: the Southern Giraffe, Masai Giraffe, Reticulated Giraffe, and Northern Giraffe. They’re classified based on their color, patterns, and geographical regions they inhabit. There are also several subspecies, including the Angolan Giraffe, Nubian Giraffe, West African Giraffe, Rothschild Giraffe, and Kordofan Giraffe.
2. The earliest known giraffid, the Palaeotragus, lived approximately 20 million years ago. This prehistoric species was tall, but did not have as long a neck as Giraffes do now. Living in areas of barren soil led them to reach for leaves in the trees. After countless generations of stretching, they evolved genetically into the Giraffe we know today.
3. Female Giraffes are known as cows, while males are called bulls and baby Giraffes are calves. They’re classified as a species of the Artiodactyla order, along with about 220 other mammals. These animals (including Cows, Deer, Goats, and Hippos) are all herbivores and mostly live in grassland habitats.
4. This weird animal only shares one close genetic relative, the Okapi. The black and white, Zebra-like legs of the Okapi can be deceiving. But a closer look at its head shows a striking resemblance to the Giraffe’s long ears and face.
5. Giraffes live together in herds with an average of 10 to 15 individuals. This helps them survive against predators, taking turns feeding while others look out for danger. Though they’re generally mild-mannered, an adult Giraffe can shatter a Lion’s skull with one powerful kick.
6. Hungry carnivores are not the only threatening creatures the Giraffe has to fear. In fact, the most dangerous ones are no larger than a seed. Tiny ticks feast on the Giraffe’s blood, leaving them weak and tired. Nematodes and flatworms can also be ingested through water, causing infections and skin disorders. Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park has observed 79% of its Giraffe population showing signs of infection.
7. Surviving in the harsh African wilderness leaves little time for sweet slumbers. Giraffes are constantly on alert for danger, so they usually manage to function on just two hours of sleep a day. They normally sleep while standing, just like horses. They will occasionally lie down, folding their legs under their body but keeping their heads erect.
READ MORE: Top 10 National Parks in Tanzania
GIRAFFE NECK & BODY FACTS
8. The neck is obviously the species’ most distinctive physical trait, measuring up to six feet long and weighing around 600 pounds. The length of the Giraffe neck gives the illusion of a complex anatomical structure underneath. But these towering creatures have only seven neck vertebrae (just like humans!), each of which is about 10 inches long and connected with ball-and-socket joints for flexibility.
9. The Giraffe’s neck length requires huge, hot air balloon-like lungs, which are eight times the size of a human’s. However, they breathe at a much slower rate because of the “dead air” that gets caught in their long tracheas. So previous breaths are not fully released before the animal begins inhaling again.
10. The Giraffe is the tallest living mammal on Earth. Males grow to be about 18 feet tall. Females are slightly shorter than the males, but still reach a staggering height of 14 feet.
11. Giraffes have humongous hearts that weigh around 25 pounds, generating enough pressue to propel blood up through their long necks and into their brains. They also have special blood vessels that contain valves that help prevent the backtracking of blood from gravity.
12. The two horns that stick out of the Giraffe head are not real horns, but ossicones– a form of thick cartilage covered in skin. Baby Giraffes are born with flat ossicones to avoid injury during birth, but they grow as they mature into adults. Males have thicker ossicones, which they use in mating-related battles.
13. Giraffes are fairly quiet beings: They do have a larynx (a.k.a. voice box), but rarely use it. If they become alarmed, a simple snort is often used to alert the herd of a possible threat. They’re also known to produce a mild humming sound during the night, perhaps to help locate other herd members in the dark.
14. Everything about the Giraffe is long, including its luscious eyelashes. This helps to keep dust out of their big eyes, which are the size of golf balls. They sit laterally on the Giraffe’s head, providing them with keen eyesight. They can’t see in full color, but they do see shades of red, orange, yellow-green, and violet.
15. Animals with hoofed feet, such as the Giraffe, are known as ungulates. Each foot has two even hooves. Each of an adult Giraffe’s feet are about 12 inches wide. These large hooves give them stability and prevent them from sinking into loose sand.
16. Sometimes known “stink bulls,” Giraffes carry a not-so-pleasant odor. Their fur releases natural repellents like indole and 3-methylindole (the same compounds found in feces) to ward off insects and parasites. Researchers believe this pungent odor tells potential mates that they’re free of parasites.
17. Giraffes have also been spotted using their grapple-like tongue to pick their noses.
GIRAFFE MATING & GESTATION
18. Male Giraffe necks are massive and powerful. To establish mating rights, bulls participate in a fighting ritual in which they swing their mighty necks like swords, delivering powerful blows by ramming their heads into each other’s bodies. Their heavy skulls are coated with calcium to shield their brains. Although it is very rare, there have been recorded deaths from these intense battles.
19. Female Giraffes mate with dominant males in hopes of passing on strong genes. They ovulate every two weeks, allowing for year-round Giraffe mating. Ovulating females release pheromones that attract males, who may sip her urine to confirm she’s ready to mate. The willing males will follow her to await her decision on who she wants to reproduce with.
20. Once successful Giraffe mating occurs, the the gestational period is approximately 15 months. The mother brings her a single baby into the world while standing up, causing the newborn to fall about six feet to the ground. The rough landing breaks the amniotic sac and umbilical cord, and encourages the baby Giraffe to start breathing.
21. Some Giraffes have been reported returning to the place where they were born to give birth.
22. Within an hour of birth, a baby Giraffe can get up and walk on its own. This is crucial so that it can quickly move with the herd in case a predator comes near. Even with its shaky, lanky legs, the newborn stands taller than most humans (about six feet) and weighs an average of 150 pounds.
23. Mothers are extremely protective of their young. They will form “nursery groups” with other females from the herd, taking turns watching over the extremely vulnerable baby Giraffes. Sadly, only about 20% of all Giraffes live to reach adulthood.
24. Although they’re not considered adults until age four, male calves will leave their mothers at around 15 months old and join all-male bachelor groups. They’ll contest for dominance while still coexisting peacefully. Once they’re ready for mating, dominant male Giraffes will visit a female herd.
25. Baby Giraffes are very dependent on their mothers for the first 4 to 6 months, relying on their milk for nutrients. After that, the mother will pull leaves off trees to feed to them until they’re tall enough to reach their own. An adult Giraffe will typically consume about 66 pounds of food per day.
26. Giraffes possess an 18-inch prehensile tongue that can grip objects, much like a Gorilla’s hands or an Elephant’s trunk. They use them to pluck leaves from acacia trees, maneuvering around the spiky thorns. The rough-textured surface of the Giraffe tongue, or papillae, keeps it protected. It’s believed that the tongue’s bluish purple coloration helps to keep it from getting burned by the sun.
27. The Giraffe’s neck doesn’t quite reach the ground when the animal needs to drink, so they have to splay their legs and kneel a bit. The neck’s complex pressure-regulation system (the “rete miribale”) prevents excess blood flow to the brain. The Giraffe uses its lips suck water into the back of the mouth, where it’s held in the esophagus until the neck is lifted back up and the water can pass into the stomach.
28. Like camels, Giraffes don’t require much water, drinking only once every few days. This is a useful adaptation, as the African savannahs often experience dry seasons. Most of their hydration comes from the plants that they eat. When they do drink, they can quickly consume up to ten gallons at once.
29. Giraffes have a special four-chambered stomach, with a digestive system that classifies them as ruminants. Much like bovines (including Cows, Buffalo, and the Saola), Sheep, and various species of Antelopes, Giraffes chew their cud. Their main stomach compartment, the rumen, helps to break down the cellulose in plants and convert it into energy.
30. Also known as the Kilimanjaro Giraffe, the Masai or Maasai is the largest Giraffe subspecies, with males reaching a height of up to 19 feet. They can be identified by their jagged, star-shaped patches. Males have dark chocolate brown patches, while females wear a lighter dirt-brown shade. Unlike other Giraffe species, their patches flow all across their bodies and down their legs.
31. The Masai Giraffe can be found throughout East Africa, including Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. They are also the national animal of Tanzania, which boasts the largest overall Giraffe population of any African country.
32. Although Tanzania has recently increased its anti-poaching and conservation efforts to protect Masai Giraffes, their numbers have severely declined in recent years. The latest estimates put their population at around 35,000, a drop of nearly 50% over the last three decades. As a result, the subspecies was recently declared endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
33. If you’ve been to any local zoo, odds are you saw a Reticulated Giraffe. Although native to Somalia, this type of Giraffe is commonly found in captivity, with most wild populations in northern Kenya. They will interbreed with other subspecies in captivity, or if they become low in numbers in the wild.
34. The subspecies’ appearance is distinguished by their wide, reddish, polygonal spots, which are outlined with bright white lines.
35. Unfortunately, Reticulated Giraffe habitat is facing destruction, causing them to disappear in the wild. Their current population is around 15,780 (less than half what it was 30 years ago), causing them to be added to the IUCN Red List of endangered species in 2018.
36.) Two completely white Reticulated Giraffes were spotted at Kenya’s Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy in 2017. The unusual mother-daughter duo have a genetic condition called leucism, which inhibits pigmentation in the skin cells. Only three of these incredibly rare white-skinned Giraffes have been reported in sightings by the wildlife conservation program.
37. The Rothschild’s Giraffe is named after famous British zoologist Walter Rothschild, who is best known for the collection now housed at the Natural History Museum at Tring.
38. The subspecies is also known as the Baringo Giraffe (after the Lake Baringo area of northern Kenya) or the Ugandan Giraffe. All animals remaining in the wild inhabit protected areas in these two regions. It was once believed that the Rothschild’s Giraffe and the Nubian Giraffe were completely different subspecies, but recent research has discovered that the two are genetically identical.
39. It’s easy to tell the Rothschild’s Giraffe from other subspecies. Their coat looks a bit like the Masai Giraffe, but with sandy skin and less jagged, caramel-colored patches that give them a more yellowish coloring. They also have no markings on the lower leg, and are the only Giraffes born with five ossicones, with smaller bumps in the center of its forehead and behind each ear.
40.) Rothschild’s Giraffe rank among the most endangered subspecies of Giraffes, with approximately 1,399 individuals remaining in the wild. Nairobi’s Giraffe Centre, run by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, is a great place to see these endangered beauties up close.
WHY ARE GIRAFFES ENDANGERED?
41. In what’s being called a “silent extinction,” Giraffe population numbers dropped from 155,000 in 1985 to 97,000 in 2015, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Habitat destruction is the leading reason Giraffes are endangered. Rapid expansion of human development and the effects of war continue to fracture the various subspecies’ home lands.
42. Like most high-profile species of sub-saharan wildlife, Giraffes are also increasingly threatened by poaching. They’re a favorite kill among Big Game hunters, and some African communities target them for subsistence meat.
43. In the cultural practices of some central African countries, the Giraffe’s tail is used to ask a bride’s father permission for marriage. The long black hairs on the tail are also occasionally taken to make bracelets, fly whisks and threads.
44. As recently as 2010, Giraffes were considered “Least Concern” in terms of conservation consideration by the IUCN. But by 2016 the entire species has been classified as Vulnerable, and may no longer exist in their historic habitat in Angola, Eritrea, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Senegal.
Fortunately, the UN-backed Convention of Migratory Species selected Giraffes for special protection in 2017. Today there are numerous sanctuaries and national parks all around the African continent that are striving to provide them with a safe haven.
Here’s a brief list of the major Giraffe conservation NGOs working to protect the beloved species for future generations:
• African Fund for Endangered Wildlife– The NGO behind Nairobi’s Giraffe Centre has a huge focus on educating kids from local communities about the importance of wildlife conservation. Their sanctuary is also a leading light in breeding endangered Rothschild’s Giraffes and releasing them into the wild.
• African Wildlife Foundation– The AWF works to educates local communities on sustainable agricultural practices in hopes of limiting human-animal conflict, as well as leading acacia planting projects in areas where Giraffe habitat has been deforested.
• Giraffe Conservation Alliance– This nonprofit organization works to connect people and zoos around the world to Giraffe conservation projects in Africa in hopes of ensuring a sustainable future for all Giraffe subspecies.
• The Giraffe Conservation Foundation– The GCF is the only NGO in the world that concentrates solely on the conservation and management of Giraffe in the wild throughout the African continent. They’re currently involved in conservation initiatives in 15 different countries.
• The Wildlife Conservation Society – The WCS monitors Giraffe populations to control habitat loss and poaching, as well as collaborating with other wildlife conservation groups on joint efforts.
FUN GIRAFFE FACTS
45. Despite being herbivores, Giraffes oddly seem to enjoy chewing and sucking on bones (which is known as osteophag). They primarily pick on barren carcass remnants when their bodies are very low on nutrients. This supplies them with extra calcium and phosphorous in order to strengthen their bones, which is especially beneficial for males preparing for “necking” battles over mating rights.
46. Did you know that Giraffes are pollinators? They inadvertently collect pollen on their fur when rummaging through the trees. Much like bees, they carry this pollen to other trees (especially acacias), allowing them to blossom. Other surprising pollinators include Bats, Rats, and even certain Lemurs.
47. A small bird known as the Oxpecker is an unlikely friend of the Giraffe. The two share a mutually beneficial relationship, with the orange-beaked birds eating harmful ticks and insects off of the Giraffe’s fur. They’re tiny enough to rest on the neck and back of the giraffe without disruption.
48. Would you believe that NASA has actually studied these magnificent animals to aid their adventures in space? The Giraffe’s remarkable circulatory system regulates their blood pressure effectively through a considerable amount of gravitational force, particularly when it bends down to drink. NASA examined this gravity-defying adaptation in 1997 to help them develop more advanced space suits for astronauts.
49. In the ancient world, this bizarre specimen was thought to be a combination of two dissimilar animals. The Giraffe’s small hump on its back and spotted skin gave it the nickname, “Camel-leopard.” This is where the species gets its scientific name, Giraffa camelopardalis.
50. While it is undoubtedly appealing to the human eye, Giraffe fur is also crucial to their survival. The dusted gold skin between brown shaded patches gives the Giraffe a distinguishable pattern of naturally beautiful symmetry that helps them stay somewhat camouflaged against the African plains. –by Megan Butler & Bret Love; photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett