The world's tallest animal uses its reach to get a neck up on other browsing animals.
Physical Description: Giraffes' long limbs, necks, and tongues enable them to reach vegetation in the trees—well above where other browsers can reach. Nine subspecies, differing in coat pattern and number of horns, live in different parts of Africa. Rothschild's giraffes (G. c. rothschildi) are exhibited at the Zoo. Giraffes' distinctive orangish, rusty, or blackish coats are broken into patchworks by whitish outlines. All-whitish giraffes are a rare find.
Size: Males stand up to 18 feet tall and weigh up to 4,200 pounds; females grow to 16 feet tall and weigh up to 2,500 pounds.
Geographic Distribution: Giraffes inhabit many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, but are now most widespread in East Africa and the northern parts of southern Africa, where they find refuge in national parks.
Status: Although listed as low risk on the World Conservation Union's (IUCN's) Red List of Threatened Animals, several giraffe subspecies are rare, including the Kordofan giraffe (G. c. antiquorum) of Sudan and the Nigerian giraffe (G. c. peralta), which is now found only in Chad and is extinct in its namesake Nigeria.
Habitat: Giraffes live in open habitats, primarily wooded savannas and open woodlands. Riparian forests (those growing along watercourses) are especially important to giraffes living in arid areas. Giraffes do not live in areas dominated by moist tropical forest.
Natural Diet: Giraffes eat the leaves of a variety of deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs. Acacia species are among their favorites. An adult giraffe may consume up to 140 pounds of foliage a day.
Reproduction: Giraffes breed throughout the year. Males go from female herd to female herd seeking prospective mates. They zero in on females in heat, often feeding beside them and occasionally tangling necks. Fourteen to 15 months after mating takes place, females give birth to a single calf (rarely two). During their first few weeks, calves stay close to their mothers; soon after, they join a group of young called a creche.
Life Span: Giraffes live up to 25 years in the wild and often longer at zoos.
Behavior: Female giraffes travel in loosely structured herds, as do young males. However, older males are usually solitary, spending their days seeking female herds containing prospective mates. Males sometimes fight, using their up-to-25-pound heads, nine-inch horns, and strong necks. (These battles rarely result in injury.) Females protect their young by kicking at predators with their dinner-plate-sized hooves. First-year calves join creches, which are often left unattended by adults. Ever watchful for predators, giraffes sleep only about a half-hour a day, and this time is usually broken up into about six, five-minute naps.
Past/Present/Future: For about as long as people have been able to hunt large animals, they have sought giraffes as prey. Although people still hunt giraffes, habitat destruction is the greatest threat to them and many of Africa's other large animals. Hunting and habitat loss have driven giraffes to extinction in a number of countries, including Mauritania, Senegal, and possibly Mozambique and Mali. When farms abut giraffe habitat, the animals often raid crops. Some farmers shoot them. However, many cattle ranchers don't mind these high-level browsers, which do not compete with their livestock for food. The future of giraffes and Africa's other famed plains animals lies in careful conservation of extensive habitats, both on park and private lands.
A Few Giraffe Neighbors:
Lion (Panthera leo): About half of young giraffes fall to these great cats, hyenas, or other predators within their first year.
Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus): Growing ten feet or longer, this stealthy reptile ambushes large animals—including giraffes—when they settle down to drink.
Lappet-Faced Vulture (Aegypius tracheliotus): The largest and strongest of six vulture species that commonly scout African plains for lion kills and other large animal carcasses.
Ancient Romans called giraffes "camelopards," describing them as hybrid animals with camel bodies and leopard spots. The giraffe's species name, camelopardalis, includes this name.
Male giraffes sometimes spar by swinging their heads at one another (pictured at left). This behavior, which can entwine their necks, is called "necking."
Baby giraffes are born six feet tall, taller than the average person. They can grow an inch a day and just about double their height in one year.
Thanks in part to moisture-rich foods such as acacia leaves, giraffes can go weeks without drinking. They usually seek water every few days, lowering themselves in a splay-legged drinking stance that leaves them vulnerable to predators.
Tall Blondes: A Book About Giraffes, by Lynn Sherr; Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1997.
The Giraffe: Its Biology, Behavior, and Ecology, by Anne Innis Dagg and J. Bristol Foster; Krieger Publishing Company, 1982.