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Giraffe Facts | Southern Africa Wildlife Guide

Giraffes are divided into numerous subspecies, although the most well-known are the Maasai, reticulated and Rothschild’s giraffes. In Southern Africa, however, all giraffe are “southern giraffe.” Subspecies differ only in their blotch pattern, color and distribution; all other characteristics are the same.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

  • Weigh up to 2,200 pounds, and have a unique gait due to their weight and higher center of gravity.
  • Both legs on one side appear to move at the same time, making it look as if the giraffe is rolling. When galloping, the hind legs swing forward together to plant in front of the forefeet.
  • Even though their gait can look gangly, giraffes can reach a maximum speed of 37 miles per hour.
  • The pattern of a giraffe’s coat is fixed for life, making it possible for human observers to distinguish one animal from another; however, animals do tend to get darker with age.
  • It is not easy to distinguish males from females, although males tend to be larger and seem to spend more time feeding from tree canopies, whereas females prefer to feed on the underside of trees.
  • Curiously, the giraffe’s long neck has only seven cervical vertebrae, no more than any other animal, although they are extremely elongated.
  • Both sexes are born with horns covered by skin and topped with black hair.

HABITAT

Giraffes inhabit open woodland and wooded grassland. They also may be seen in open grassland, and occasionally at the forest’s edge. Giraffes often frequent drainage-line vegetation in the dry season, but riparian thickets are the only place you are likely to see them in dense vegetation. One often observes giraffes stretching as high as they can go and extending their extremely long, leather-like tongues to pluck a couple of leaves off an umbrella thorn acacia.

BEHAVIOR

Giraffes are typically diurnal creatures, but also move about at night. They sometimes utter snorts and grunts, but are generally silent animals. Often, the only noise to be heard when a giraffe moves is the click of its hooves when its feet are lifted off the ground.

These long-legged animals have few enemies. They are most vulnerable when drinking, as they splay their front legs and lower their heads, often in the vicinity of thick, waterside vegetation. Giraffes will only drink after carefully looking around, and it is only done every two to three days. At waterholes in Botswana, it is often frustrating to watch a giraffe trying to come to drink, as the entire process could take hours; young may even be taken by lions if the adults are not around. Females will defend their young against any attacker by kicking with their hind legs. The mortality rate for a giraffe, up to age 3, is about eight percent.

Traditionally, giraffes have not been hunted by humans. They rarely raid local maize farms, and their feeding habits make them almost impervious to drought. But increasing pressure from development and poaching have more recently landed giraffes on the vulnerable list among the international Red List of Threatened Species.

GIRAFFE SOCIETY

The individual is the basic social unit in giraffe society. The animals are loosely gregarious, with group sizes between two and 12, and herd composition changing constantly as adults come and go. A female’s home range may be as large as 48 square miles, but she will spend most of her time in the central part where she feeds. Dominant males have a tendency to wander in and out of female home ranges.

Fights between dominant males are rarely seen. When they approach each other, they frequently adopt a threat posture in which they “stand tall.” This is normally enough to persuade the less dominant male to leave. Serious fighting occurs only when the fixed dominance hierarchy breaks down—for example, when a new nomadic male comes into the neighborhood.

A ritualized form of fighting known as “necking” is carried out by males, normally during the time a female is in estrus. The animals intertwine necks, often accompanied by blows to the head and neck. The “winner” of the bout often climbs on the back of the “loser.” This frequently leads the observer to the erroneous conclusion that necking is a courtship ritual.

BREEDING

Giraffes breed year-round. Females reach sexual maturity at age 5, males not until eight. Dominant males will patrol the home range looking for females that come into heat. Males test females by smelling their vulvas or sampling their urine to see if they are receptive. If a dominant male finds a female in estrous, he will displace lesser males and consort with her until mating occurs.

During their lifespan, females may have up to 12 calves, each weighing approximately 220 pounds and measuring six feet tall at birth. Twins are very rare. Births normally occur in a calving ground; this may lead to the formation of “crèches” in which unweaned calves spend most of the day together on their own.

FEEDING HABITS

Feeding generally occurs between 6 am and 9 am and again from 3 pm to 6 pm. Giraffes are ruminants and spend a good portion of the day resting and chewing their cud. They are exclusively browsers, with 95 percent of their feeding confined to the foliage of bushes and trees. All parts are taken—leaves, buds, shoots and fruits. On rare occasions, they’ll eat grass and creepers.

Mostly, the graceful giraffe favors the leaves of specific acacia trees. One often observes giraffes stretching as high as they can go and extending their extremely long, leather-like tongues to pluck a couple of leaves off an umbrella thorn acacia. Giraffes are the tallest animals on the planet, in addition to being the biggest ruminants (four-stomached creatures). Ruminants are able to consume smaller amounts of food, extracting a high quantity of nutrients from each leaf.

Acacia fodder is harvested in a couple different ways, depending on the strength of the thorns. Young, flexible thorns are flattened and the leaves stripped off with a sideways sweep; older, more robust thorns may also be flattened, engulfed in mucous and swallowed along with the branch. Very woody branches may simply be nibbled at selectively. A giraffe uses its tough tongue and lips very deftly. Its agile black tongue, which can reach up to 18 inches, curls around branches. Giraffe saliva is exceptionally sticky and antiseptic, helpful when browsing thorny branches.

Photo Credit: Alex Mazunga
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