We all know and love giraffes. Well, most of us do. Their towering necks stand out in the landscape and their beautiful coats make them unmistakeable. Of all the animals that people hope to see when out on safari, giraffe are definitely up there near the top of the checklist. For such a world-renowned species though, there are many facts about them that you may never have heard before. Here are a few to help you charm your mates at your next dinner party…
1. Giraffe have the biggest eyes of the mammals seen on safari
We all know that giraffe are the tallest of all the animals out here, but did you know that giraffe’s eyes are even bigger than those of elephant, rhino and hippo? Ostriches aren’t the only land animals on safari that have large eyes. Giraffe have excellent vision in almost all directions, which they use to their advantage to keep safe by constantly scanning the landscape for threats such as lions.
2. The head is roughly two metres above the heart
With the head of a giraffe being anywhere from 3,5 metres to 5,5 metres off the ground, the blood has to travel a long way up the neck to the head. This poses quite a challenge, thus giraffe have an extremely high blood pressure to pump blood around the body. The heart is not all that big but beats at double the rate of humans at around 170-180 beats per minute. The heart has to work very hard to maintain blood-flow throughout the body, which leads in to the next fascinating fact…
3. Giraffe have the thickest skin of all land mammals
Due to the high blood pressure maintained within a giraffe’s body, the skin has developed to be exceedingly thick. The skin acts almost like a compression suit to prevent the pooling of blood due to such high pressure. Imagine how quickly a giraffe would bleed out from a tiny scratch if the skin was not thick?! The capillaries are thick-walled and inelastic to avoid this. Furthermore, the skin is about 16 millimetres thick, which is more than double the thickness of elephant or hippo skin. Hard to believe!
4. Giraffe calves can stand up within minutes of being born.
Weighing in at a hefty 100 kilograms at birth, newborn giraffes fall from quite a height as a welcome to the world. Just like all antelope species, they are incredibly vulnerable at a young age, thus need to be able to get up and move with their mother as soon as possible to avoid being preyed upon. It can take as little as 15 minutes from birth to walking in giraffe!
5. The name is derived from an Arabic word
‘Giraff'” is potentially derived from one of two origins. ‘Zarafa’ is an Arabic word that means ‘one who walks swiftly’. ‘Xirapha’, a slight variation refers to the ‘graceful one’. Both theories refer to the way in which a giraffe walks though, with both left legs moving together then both right legs etc. so as to not trip over the long limbs. The scientific name on the other hand, Giraffa camelopardalis refers to the beautiful coat resembling a leopard. In Latin it refers to a camel in a leopard coat or leopard skin! Although unrelated to camels, both camels and giraffe have the same stepping pattern of movement with both legs on one side moving together.
6. Giraffe do not have true horns
The ‘horns’ of giraffe are more correctly termed ‘ossicles’. They are present at birth but are not connected to the skull and lie flat on the head. After birth, the cartilage ‘floating horns’ slowly turn upright and begin to ossify into bone and connect to the skull. Unlike horns, which are covered in keratin, ossicles have a skin covering. In male giraffe the tips of the ossicles take on a bald appearance from fights with other males whereas females ossicles have black tufts of hair around the top. Male giraffe also develop a third horn-like bump on the forehead from ossification in the region as a result of fighting over their lives.
7. The vertebrae below the head are specially designed for stretching to reach leaves
Giraffe have the same number of vertebra in their necks (seven) as most mammals. The bones are just much longer and larger. The last join in the vertebra between the base of the head and the neck (the axis/atlas joint) is extremely flexible, allowing giraffe to put their heads at an almost vertical angle from the neck. This is unusual in mammals (try look straight up and see how limited our movement is). It allows giraffe to reach the tallest of branches that not even elephants can reach, enabling exclusive access to a precious resource – fresh leaf shoots and flowers.
8. The tongue is prehensile and is blueish black in colour
The 45 cm tongue of giraffes is bluish black in colour and is incredibly tough in order to withstand the thorns around which it wraps during feeding. Unlike all of our tongues, giraffe can control the tip of their tongue and loop it around branches and leaves in a prehensile manner, almost like the way a chameleon uses its tail. This enables giraffe to pull branches into their mouth or strip leaves of the tips of branches.
9. Giraffe can run at about 55-60 kph
Almost as if they are running in slow motion, these gentle giants can sure put up a good effort out the starting blocks reaching top speeds of about 34-37 miles per hour. They put their long necks forward, heads down and gallop in a rather peculiar looking fashion!
10. Giraffe sleep sitting up
When they do sleep, giraffe will sit down, mostly with the head and neck up and doze for a few minutes at a time. Every now and then, for a few minutes, they may curl the neck around and place the head on the rump. This will normally be in a large open clearing or on a crest, where they feel safer and have the time to stand up and run away before anything sneaks up on them. A large portion of rest will be acquired during rumination. This is the period of time when they regurgitate partially digested food (the cud) back into the mouth and re-chew it, swallowing it again to gather maximum nutrients and moisture – just like cows do. During rumination, animals’ brains are alert but in a much more relaxed state than normal activity, enabling a period of rest and recovery. Giraffes sleep for less than two hours a day in short intervals compared to their main predator – lions – who can sleep for 18-20 hours per day! A rather unfair playing field…
11. Giraffe only eat leaves… And sometimes bones
Often people ask us whether the giraffe will eat the impala that it is standing next to. This would never ever happen, for many reasons – the main one being that giraffe are herbivores and eat predominantly leaves. However, every now and then, you may encounter a giraffe crunching on old bones found lying in a landscape. This throws a curveball out there, but is really only the giraffe looking to up their calcium intake – particularly during dry and harsh times. The behaviour is called osteophagia and is practiced by some other animals like wildebeest and tortoises. They sometimes practice geophagia too – eating soil to improve digestive abilities.
Any other facts that you could share with us in the comments below?