The giraffe is related to deer and cattle, but is placed in a separate family, the Giraffidae, consisting only of the giraffe and its closest relative, the okapi. Its range extends from Chad to South Africa.
Giraffes can inhabit savannas, grasslands, or open woodlands. They prefer areas enriched with acacia growth. They drink large quantities of water and, as a result, they can spend long periods of time in dry, arid areas. When searching for more food they will venture into areas with denser foliage.
Some scientists regard Kordofan and West African Giraffes as a single subspecies; similarly with Nubian and Rothschild's Giraffes, and with Angolan and South African Giraffes. Further, some scientists regard all populations except the Masai Giraffes as a single subspecies. By contrast, scientists have proposed four other subspecies — Cape Giraffe (G.c. capensis), Lado Giraffe (G.c. cottoni), Congo Giraffe (G.c. congoensis), and Transvaal Giraffe (G.c. wardi) — but none of these is widely accepted.
Though giraffes of these populations interbreed freely under conditions of captivity, suggesting that they are subspecific populations, genetic testing published in 2007 has been interpreted to show that there may be at least six species of giraffe that are reproductively isolated and not interbreeding, even though no natural obstacles, like mountain ranges or impassable rivers block their mutual access. In fact, the study found that the two giraffe populations that live closest to each other— the reticulated giraffe (G. camelopardalis reticulata) of north Kenya, and the Masai giraffe (G. c. tippelskirchi) in south Kenya— separated genetically between 0.13 and 1.62 million years BP, judging from genetic drift in nuclear and mitochondrial DNA.
The implications for conservation of as many as eleven such cryptic species and sub-species were summarised by David Brown for BBC News: "Lumping all giraffes into one species obscures the reality that some kinds of giraffe are on the brink. Some of these populations number only a few hundred individuals and need immediate protection."
Male giraffes are around 4.8-5.5 m (16-19 ft) tall at the horn tips, and normally weigh 1300-1700 kg (2900-3800 lb) Females are 30-60 cm (1-2 ft) shorter and weigh about 200-400 kg (400-800 lb) less than males. Giraffes have spots covering their entire bodies, except their underbellies, with each giraffe having a unique pattern of spots.
Modifications to the giraffe's structure have evolved, particularly to the circulatory system. A giraffe's heart, which can weigh up to 10 kg (22 lb) and measure about 60 cm (2 ft) long, has to generate around double the normal blood pressure for an average large mammal in order to maintain blood flow to the brain against gravity. In the upper neck, a complex pressure-regulation system called the rete mirabile prevents excess blood flow to the brain when the giraffe lowers its head to drink. Conversely, the blood vessels in the lower legs are under great pressure (because of the weight of fluid pressing down on them). In other animals such pressure would force the blood out through the capillary walls; giraffes, however, have a very tight sheath of thick skin over their lower limbs which maintains high extravascular pressure in exactly the same way as a pilot's g-suit.
Female giraffes associate in groups of a dozen or so members, occasionally including a few younger males. Younger males tend to live in "bachelor" herds, with older males often leading solitary lives. Reproduction is polygamous, with a few older males impregnating all the fertile females in a herd. Male giraffes determine female fertility by tasting the female's urine in order to detect estrus, in a multi-step process known as the Flehmen response.
Giraffes will mingle with the other herbivores in the African bush. They are beneficial to be around because of their height. A giraffe is tall enough to have a much wider scope of an area and will watch out for predators.
Giraffe gestation lasts between 14 and 15 months, after which a single calf is born. The mother gives birth standing up and the embryonic sack usually bursts when the baby falls to the ground. Newborn giraffes are about 1.8 m (6 ft) tall.
Within a few hours of being born, calves can run around and are indistinguishable from a week-old calf; however, for the first two weeks, they spend most of their time lying down, guarded by the mother. The young can fall prey to lions, leopards, spotted hyenas, and wild dogs. It has been speculated that their characteristic spotted pattern provides a certain degree of camouflage. Only 25 to 50% of giraffe calves reach adulthood; the life expectancy is between 20 and 25 years in the wild and 28 years in captivity (Encyclopedia of Animals).
As noted above, males often engage in necking, which has been described as having various functions. One of these is combat. Battles can be fatal, but are more often less severe. The longer the neck, and the heavier the head at the end of the neck, the greater the force a giraffe is able to deliver in a blow. It has also been observed that males that are successful in necking have greater access to estrous females, so the length of the neck may be a product of sexual selection.
After a necking duel, a giraffe can land a powerful blow with his head — occasionally knocking a male opponent to the ground. These fights rarely last more than a few minutes or end in physical harm.
Another function of necking is affectionate and sexual, in which two males will caress and court each other, leading up to mounting and climax. Same sex relations are more frequent than heterosexual behaviour. In one area 94% of mounting incidents were of a homosexual nature. The proportion of same sex courtships varies between 30 and 75%, and at any given time one in twenty males will be engaged in affectionate necking behaviour with another male. Females, on the other hand, only appear to have same sex relations in 1% of mounting incidents.
Due to the obvious social and cultural discomfort associated with the addition of milk delivery devices, animal enclosures are often enriched with other stimuli, such as food and mental distractions (toys, scent markings etc.). This operates as a distraction, removing the giraffe’s focus from its instinctual tendencies towards suckling, resulting in tongue lolling and licking of objects in close proximity.
The giraffe browses on the twigs of trees, preferring trees of the genus Mimosa; but it appears that it can live without inconvenience on other vegetable food. A giraffe can eat 63 kg (140 lb) of leaves and twigs daily. As ruminants, they first chew their food, swallow for processing and then visibly regurgitate the semi-digested cud up their necks and back into the mouth, in order to chew again. This process is usually repeated several times for each mouthful.
A giraffe will clean off any bugs that appear on its face with its extremely long tongue (about 45 cm/18 in). The tongue is tough on account of the giraffe's diet, which can include thorns from the trees that they eat. In Southern Africa, giraffes feed on all acacias, especially Acacia erioloba, and possess a specially-adapted tongue and lips that are tough enough to withstand, or even ignore, the vicious thorns of this plant.
Giraffes are hunted for their hides, hair, and meat. In addition, habitat destruction also hurts the giraffe. In the Sahel trees are cut down for firewood and to make way for livestock. Normally, giraffes are able to cope with livestock since they feed in the trees above their heads. The giraffe population is shrinking in West Africa. However, the populations in eastern and southern Africa are stable and, due to the popularity of privately-owned game ranches and sanctuaries (i.e. Bour-Algi Giraffe Sanctuary), are expanding. The giraffe is a protected species in most of its range. The total African giraffe population has been estimated to range from 110,000 to 150,000. Kenya (45,000), Tanzania (30,000), and Botswana (12,000), have the largest national populations.
An unexpected danger to giraffes in captivity is that, as they are typically the tallest objects in a zoo, giraffes are at increased risk of being struck by lightning. In the wild, this hazard is reduced by the presence of trees; as well, the giraffe's natural habitat range has an extremely low occurrence of lightning -- NASA's satellite lightning detection system indicates that the area receives an average of less than one cloud-to-ground flash per square kilometre per year.
The Medici giraffe was a giraffe presented to Lorenzo de' Medici in 1486. It caused a great stir on its arrival in Florence, being reputedly the first living giraffe to be seen in Italy since the days of Ancient Rome. Another famous giraffe, called Zarafa, was brought from Africa to Paris in the early 1800s and kept in a menagerie for 18 years.
Giraffe is a novel by the author J. M. Ledgard. The work concerns a true incident in which 49 giraffes were slaughtered in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) in 1975 following the suspected outbreak of disease amongst the group. The novel contains extensive information about the species, including the long history of European fascination with the beast and its captivity in zoos.
Notable fictional giraffes include: