A giraffe walking through the grasslands in Masai Mara, Kenya.
Credit: Paul Banton | Shutterstock
Giraffes tower over Africa's plains. These tall animals are identified by their long necks, equally long and spindly legs, and spotted coats. Most giraffes have a tan, white or yellow coat that is spotted with brown, square shapes.
Giraffes are the tallest living animals in the world, according to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. A giraffe's neck alone is 6 feet (1.8 meters) long and weighs about 600 lbs. (272 kilograms). The animal's legs are also 6 feet long.
In full, females grow up to 14 feet (4.3 m) tall and weigh up to 1,500 lbs. (680 kg), while males grow up to 18 feet (5.5 m) tall and weigh up to 3,000 lbs. (1,360 kg).
With such a massive body, it makes sense that the giraffes' organs and other body parts are equally huge. Their tongues are a substantial 21 inches (53 centimeters) long, and their feet are 12 inches (30.5 cm) across. According to the San Diego Zoo, a giraffe's heart is 2 feet (0.6 m) long and weighs about 25 lbs. (11 kg). Their lungs can hold 12 gallons (55 liters) of air. In comparison, the average total lung capacity for a human is 1.59 gallons (6 liters).
Every giraffe has 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]
Where do giraffes live?
Giraffes live in savannas throughout Africa. They like semi-arid, open woodlands that have scattered trees and bushes, making the savannas perfect for these animals.
Giraffes are so social that they don't have territories. A group of giraffes is aptly called a tower, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Towers typically have 12 to 15 members and are led by an older male. The other members in the tower are females, their young and young males.
Giraffes only sleep around 20 minutes or less per day, according to PBS Nature. Staying awake most of the time allows them to be constantly on alert for predators. They usually get their sleep in quick power naps that last just a couple of minutes.
Giraffes are herbivores, which means they eat only plants. Their long necks allow them to reach leaves, buds and branches high up in mimosa and acacia trees. They can eat hundreds of pounds of leaves per week, according to National Geographic.
Though these animals eat a lot, giraffes can go without drinking for weeks at a time. They get most of their moisture from the vegetation they eat.
As in cattle, female giraffes are called cows, while the males are called bulls. After mating, the cow will have a gestation period of around 14 months. During birth, the calf will drop to the ground, since mother giraffes give birth standing up. The fall can be as far as 5 feet (1.5 m), according to National Geographic.
New calves are quite large, at 6 feet tall (1.8 m), 100 to 150 lbs. (45 to 68 kg), according to the San Diego Zoo. They are also agile. At just an hour after birth, they can stand up and walk around.
Giraffe mothers often take turns watching over the calves. Sometimes, though, the mother giraffe will leave the calf by itself. When this happens, the infant will lie down and wait for its mother to return.
At 3 to 6 years old, calves are fully mature. The animals can live up to 20 years.
According to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), it is generally accepted that there is one species of giraffe, which has nine subspecies. However, the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) lists only six, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) only recognizes two. Recent genetic analysis indicates some of these subspecies may be separate species, according to the GCF. The taxonomy of giraffes, according to ITIS, is:
Species: Giraffa camelopardalis
- Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis (Nubian giraffe)
- Giraffa camelopardalis giraffa (South African giraffe or cape giraffe)
- Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata (reticulated giraffe)
- Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi (Ugandan giraffe or Rothschild's giraffe)
- Giraffa camelopardalis thornicrofti (Thornicroft's giraffe)
- Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi (Masai giraffe)
In addition, GCF lists Giraffa camelopardalis angolensis (Angolan giraffe or smokey giraffe), Giraffa camelopardalis antiquorum (Kordofan giraffe) and Giraffa camelopardalis peralta (Niger giraffe, Nigerian giraffe or West African giraffe).
Giraffes as a whole are not endangered, and are listed as "least concern" by the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species. Although not threatened by extinction, the giraffe population is less than 80,000 and decreasing, but the exact numbers are unclear, according to the Red List.
The Nigerian giraffe and Rothschild's giraffe subspecies, however, are listed as endangered. The IUCN says there were fewer than 200 Nigerian giraffe individuals at last count in 2008, although numbers were increasing due to conservation programs. Estimates in 2010 put the population of Rothschild's giraffes at well below 2,500 mature individuals. The IUCN says the subspecies is potentially close to meeting the threshold for being listed as "critically endangered."
Giraffe populations are challenged because of poaching and shrinking habitat. The animals' tails are made into good-luck bracelets, fly whisks and thread for stringing beads, according to the African Wildlife Foundation. As agricultural settlement expands, the giraffe's main source of food, the acacia tree, is being cut down.
Just like human fingerprints and zebra stripes, the coat pattern of a giraffe is unique to that animal.
The pattern and the small hump on a giraffe's back are similar to those of a leopard. Years ago, many people thought the giraffe was a combination of a camel and a leopard, and they called these animals "camel-leopards."
You will often see giraffes walking around with birds on their backs. These birds are called tickbirds. They eat bugs that live in the giraffe's coat and alert the animals to danger by chirping loudly.
Even if you spent a lot of time with giraffes, you would never hear them make a noise. This is because giraffes communicate using noises that are too low for humans to hear, according to PBS Nature.
Thanks to their long legs, giraffes are very fast. They can run 35 mph (56 km/h) in short bursts and run for longer stretches at 10 mph (16 km/h), according to National Geographic.
Giraffes are even-toed ungulates, which means they have two weight-bearing hooves on each foot, and are in the order Artiodactyla, which also includes antelopes, cattle, goats, sheep, caribou, moose, hippos and pigs.