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Fun Facts About Giraffes

A giraffe walking through the grasslands in Masai Mara, Kenya.
A giraffe walking through the grasslands in Masai Mara, Kenya.
Credit: Paul Banton | Shutterstock

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Cetartiodactyla

Family: Giraffidae

Genus: Giraffa

Species: Giraffa camelopardalis

Subspecies: G. camelopardalisperalta (West African Giraffe, Nigerien Giraffe), G. camelopardalisrothschildi (Ugandan Giraffe, Rothschild's Giraffe), G. camelopardalisreticulate (Reticulated Giraffe), G. camelopardalis camelopardalis (Nubian Giraffe), G. camelopardalis tippelskirchi (Masai Giraffe), G. camelopardalis angolensis (Angolan Giraffe), G. camelopardalis giraffa

There's still confusion among experts about how many giraffe species and subspecies really exist.

Basic giraffe facts:

Giraffes are the tallest animals in the world. Males can grow up to 18 feet (5.5 meters) tall, females can reach 14 feet (4.3 m) tall and their babies, called calves, are born around 6 feet (1.8 m) tall. Calves can grow up to an inch a day.

Like a human fingerprint, each giraffe's coat is unique. Some subspecies have patterns that look like oak leaves, while others have square-shaped patterns that make the giraffe look like it's covered by a net. Their coat colors vary from white to light tan to nearly black, depending on what they eat and where they live. Some experts think that the patterns are for camouflage.

In the wild, giraffes will sleep only about 20 minutes a day — and usually not more than five minutes at a time — as they need to stay alert to watch for predators.

All giraffes have two hair-covered horns called ossicones. Male giraffes use their horns to playfully fight with one another. They also spar by swinging their heads at one another and entwining their necks, which is called "necking." [Images: Animals' Dazzling Headgear]

Like camels, giraffes can go for a long time without drinking water because their diet — especially acacia leaves, their favorite food — contains a lot of water. When they do get thirsty, they have to bend down awkwardly to drink, which makes them easy targets for predators. To help protect themselves, giraffes usually go to watering holes together and take turns watching for predators.

Giraffes are herbivores, and they eat leaves, buds and branches from mimosa and acacia trees. Their height helps them reach food well above where other animals can reach. A giraffe may eat more than 75 pounds (34 kilograms) of food each day. Because they get just a few leaves in every bite, they spend most of their day eating.

Acacia trees have long thorns that deter most animals — but not giraffes. Their 18-inch (46-centimeter) tongues can reach around the thorns, and their thick, sticky saliva coats any thorns they might swallow. The dark blue-gray color of a giraffe's tongue helps protect it from sunburn while the giraffe is reaching for tree leaves.

Giraffes are ruminants, like cows, and their stomachs have four compartments that digest the leaves they eat. After a giraffe swallows a mouthful of leaves once, a ball of already-chewed leaves, or cud, will make its way back up the throat for more grinding.

Giraffes can breed anytime throughout the year. A male will sort of flirt with a female in heat, sometimes feeding beside her and tangling necks with her. Females give birth to a single calf about 14 months after they mate.

When a giraffe calf is born, it drops to the ground head first from about 6 feet (1.8 meters) high. The fall surprises the calf and makes it take a big breath, but doesn't really hurt it. The calf can walk after about an hour, and it can run with its mom just 10 hours after it's born. After they're a few weeks old, calves join a group of young giraffes called a crèche.

Giraffes can live up to 25 years in the wild and longer in captivity.

Where giraffes live:

Giraffes used to live throughout arid and dry-savanna zones of sub-Saharan Africa, wherever there were trees. Now their range has shrunk due to habitat loss. Most giraffes live in wooded savannas, open woodlands and riparian forests, in east Africa and the northern parts of southern Africa, where they're protected by national parks.

West African Giraffes only survive in the wild, and the only known population lives in southwestern Niger.

The only remaining wild population of Ugandan Giraffes is in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda. They've also been re-introduced to six sites in Kenya and one other site in Uganda.

Conservation status: Least Concern to Endangered

Overall, the species is of least concern, but the subspecies listed above, the West African Giraffe and the Ugandan Giraffe, are both endangered.

Giraffes are widespread throughout Africa, and their population totals more than 100,000. Experts believe their numbers are shrinking due to habitat loss and poaching, so the species may soon be listed as threatened.

The West African Giraffe is endangered. There are currently fewer than 200 individuals in this subspecies, though experts think they're on the rise thanks to conservation programs.

The Ugandan Giraffe is also endangered. There are fewer than 2,500 individuals in this subspecies, and experts are worried that this number is shrinking.

Odd facts:

Giraffes look a little like a cross between a camel and a leopard: They have a small hump on their back and a spotted coat. People used to call the giraffe a "camel-leopard," and that's how the giraffe got its species name, camelopardalis.

A giraffe's foot is 12 inches (30 centimeters) across — about the size of a dinner plate.

A giraffe's neck is 6 feet (1.8 m) long and weighs about 600 pounds (272 kg).

A giraffe's back legs look shorter than its front legs, but they're really about the same length — 6 feet (1.8 m).

A giraffe's heart is 2 feet (0.6 meters) long and weighs about 25 pounds (11 kg).

For a long time people thought giraffes were mute, but they actually communicate by emitting moans or low notes that humans can't hear. They can also whistle, hiss, moo and roar.

Besides humans, giraffes' only predators are lions and crocodiles. Giraffes can defend themselves with a deadly kick when they need to.

Many male giraffes check whether a female's in heat by nudging her to make her pee. They can usually tell by smell, but some males will even taste the urine to see if she's ready to mate.

Giraffes have the same number of vertebrae in their necks as we do — seven. Each one can be over 10 inches (25.4 cm) long.

Giraffes run by moving their front and back legs on one side forward together. Their funny gait makes them pretty fast: The record running speed of a giraffe is 34.7 mph (56 kph).

Other resources:

IUCN Red List: Giraffe

Smithsonian National Zoo Fact Sheet: Giraffe

PBS Nature Critter Guide: Giraffe

San Diego Zoo: Giraffes

National Geographic Giraffe Facts

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