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  • Sara Thompson

Learn More About Those Giant Giraffes

By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise

Image credit is Waraho Mwangi, obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Giraffes are the tallest land mammal on the planet and they only live in Africa. Currently, there is only one species of giraffe, with nine subspecies, differentiated by the look of their spots and patterns. However, the scientific community is always making new discoveries and looking at the DNA and genome of these animals, and the giraffe classification system is shifting and changing often.

Giraffes have several adaptations that suit them well in their African habitat. Their base coat is light color interspersed with darker patches. Like fingerprints, each giraffe has a unique pattern of patches on their body. The patches, sometimes called spots, are used for camouflage. As light filters through trees and tall grasses, it creates layers of light and shadow, helping giraffes blend in among trees. Despite being the tallest land mammal, they still have some predators. Calves are hunted more than adults and only around a quarter of giraffe calves live to adulthood. Calves are preyed upon by leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs. The only animal that will hunt both giraffe calves and adults are lions. Aiding in their survival is their size, good eyesight, powerful legs for kicking, and a strong social structure.

Giraffes form groups of usually females and calves, with a few males forming smaller groups of two to three. Giraffes do not have territories like many African animals but do have a standard “home range” that they cross back and forth grazing. Unlike many mammals, giraffes do not have an annual fertile cycle, and can become pregnant at any time of the year. They carry their babies for over a year (between 400-460 days), and when the calf is born it is around six feet tall.

Giraffes are herbivores, grazing on leaves from trees in the savannah. Adult giraffe necks are over seven feet long and their head can rotate 90 degrees allowing them to reach some of the highest branches to find their food. They have a long, flexible tongue that wraps around and pulls leaves into their mouths. Giraffes need to eat upwards of 75 pounds of food per day to maintain their health. Most of the water giraffes get is from their food, but they do need to drink directly from a water source every few days. To do this, giraffes spread and bend their front legs and lower their heads down to drink. They have specialized veins in their neck and head to prevent blood rushing to their head when it is down, and to prevent fainting when they stand up again.

These great animals are different than most animals in the world and have many adaptations to help them survive the harsh environments of Africa. Despite being well capable of defending themselves against predators, they have been hunted extensively by humans and are a threatened species. There is estimated to be less than 100,000 giraffes in the world, but with conservation efforts their numbers are improving.

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