Giraffes are curiously ungainly animals. They are very well-known in the Western world, thanks their presence at zoos and the popularity of toys like Sophie the giraffe or Geoffrey the Giraffe, the mascot of the now-defunct chain, Toys ‘R Us, or April, the perpetually pregnant giraffe whose live birthing garnered millions of online viewers.
They are instantly recognizable. It is therefore surprising that people know so little about them, or that their survival in the wild is so threatened.
Giraffes may look all the same, but in the wild, there are actually four species of giraffes:
- the Northern giraffe
- the West African giraffe
- Rothschild’s giraffe
- the reticulated giraffe
Though it has been reported that giraffes have cross-bred in zoos, all of these species and their subspecies live in very geographically distinct areas across the continent of Africa, and very infrequently overlap in the wild.
Their physiology — their height and long necks — is so interesting that it has inspired centuries of scientists, trying to figure out what environmental events caused the giraffe to end up looking like it does. Not every scientist got it right, however.
Famously, early evolutionary biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck used giraffes as an example of his theories, that, if an animal needed to adapt to suit its environment, it could do so within its own lifetime. So, if a giraffe was trying to reach leaves that were too high, it would be able to stretch and eventually lengthen its own neck to reach them.
In actuality, it was his theories that were a bit of a stretch.
Why are giraffes important to the environment?
Giraffes are a keystone African herbivore. They have the ability to completely change the habitats around them.
While traversing the landscape to feed all day, they are in actuality pruning and distributing seeds across the terrain, helping to keep the habitat managed for other wildlife to use.
Acacia trees and their seeds, a favorite food of giraffes, are not favored by other species so seed germination of this iconic African tree would be stymied without the germination effects of giraffes’ consumption.
Giraffes are also believed to be pollinators, as they go from tree to tree, blossom to blossom, across large distances.
It is also believed that giraffes’ tall vantage point and excellent vision help them to spot danger early, and gives other herbivores in the area the “heads up” when carnivores are coming.
Fun facts about giraffes
- Their legs and neck are not the only thing about the giraffe that’s huge – their tongues can be up to two feet long!
- The hooves of an adult giraffe are approximately the size of your dinner plate.
- A group of giraffes is called a “tower.”
- Baby giraffes are born already six feet tall.
- Female giraffes give birth standing up, so infants are born, falling about five feet to the ground.
- Giraffes are the world’s largest ruminant — that means that they chew and swallow their food, partially digest it, then regurgitate some of it to chew on as cud.
- Standard giraffe pregnancies last 15 months, but the period of time is not set as it is for humans.
- Giraffes eat about 140 pounds of food every day, all consisting of leaves.
- The complex blood pressure system that the giraffe uses to regulate its gangly body has actually been used as inspiration by NASA in their development of human space suits.
- Giraffes have the biggest eyes among terrestrial mammals — their peripheral vision extends so wide that they can see behind themselves! Excellent for keeping a lookout for lions.
Why do giraffes have such long necks?
If you explained it through the application of a basic Darwinian methodology, the giraffes developed a unique ecological niche through the evolution of a long neck by experiencing gradual anatomical changes that allowed them to reach resources, in this case, leaves, that were higher and unattainable to other species.
The theory rests on the idea that the ability to not rely on high competition vegetation that was lower to the ground gave the giraffes with longer necks the ability to be be healthy, reproduce, and transmit those long-necked genes to their offspring.
Yet in nature, there is no other animal that seems to have used this same technique; no other species with an elongated neck. Additionally, giraffes don’t actually have more cervical vertebrae in their necks than, say, humans. Each one of their cervical vertebrae is just longer.
There is a newer hypothesis that addresses these questions and also reminds us that the ability to find a mate is not always reliant on our ability to feed ourselves, but to be attractive to the opposite sex. In the case of giraffes, we know that males have longer necks than females, and also engage in a male-male fighting over mates, referred to as “necking.”
Females, according to researchers, also seem to prefer larger males with longer necks. Giraffes with a longer neck also typically get to enjoy a higher rank within the social hierarchy, allowing them to dominate other males and, statistically, mate more frequently, giving them a “leg up” on transmitting those long-necked genes.
Specific physiological adaptations of giraffes
Having such a long neck isn’t all easy, though.
A giraffe’s heart has to generate nearly double the normal blood pressure of other mammals to give the giraffe’s brain adequate blood supply.
The blood vessels in the giraffe’s lower legs bear a huge weight, and the giraffe has developed a complex pressure regulation system to keep all these factors in check.
A giraffe’s blood pressure is extremely high – twice that found in a healthy human, and its heart beats up to 170 times per minute. Thankfully this complex pressure regulation system can manage these wild extremes — and can prevent too much blood flow to the brain when the giraffe has to bend all the way down to drink water.
Though it was thought that the giraffe has a “huge” heart to accomplish all this pumping and beating, it actually has a relatively small heart. Where its power derives is in the thickness of the muscles around its heart, which can be measured getting thicker as the size of the giraffe increases and its blood supply demands grow.
Having a long neck may make giraffes seem really cool on the outside, but the physiology underneath, helping it all work, makes it even more exceptional!
Why do giraffes have spots?
It may seem like all giraffes have the same mosaic-like patchwork pattern on their skin, but giraffe experts know that each one of the species of giraffe has their own design.
But why, since most species of giraffes live in similar landscapes?
Giraffe’s spots are most importantly for camouflage, but they also house a sophisticated system of blood vessels that help the giraffe to release heat.
So, as giraffes are distributed closer and further from the equator within Africa, they can be more specialized to withstand the direct sunlight they are subjected to during their long periods of open grazing.
Are giraffes going extinct?
Yes, giraffes are, sadly, going extinct.
In 2016, all four species of giraffe were upgraded by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to “Vulnerable” and two species in particular, the West African giraffe and the Rothschild’s giraffe, are now listed as “Endangered.”
In the 1980s, it was estimated that about 150,000 total giraffes lived in the wild, but today, not even 40 years later, that number has dropped by 40 percent Africa-wide.
Giraffes have already become extinct in seven African countries, so, while it is hard to believe that such a well-known species could be removed from an ecosystem, it has already happened in many places.
Current populations of the four species of giraffes are widely scattered and fragmented, and each population is subject to a variety of threats specific to its region.
Part of the reason why giraffes have suffered from such a drastic decline is simply because no one was really paying attention. They were such an iconic part of the African landscape that it was assumed they were in no danger and little focus was paid to research and protection.
Their extinction would be tragic enough by itself, but if the reason was that no one was looking hard enough, it would not only be tragic but shameful.
Why is the giraffe population decreasing?
Giraffes, large-bodied grazing mammals, need 140 pounds of leaves each day, necessitating their traverse over huge distances daily in order to get enough to eat. It’s not just one thing which contributes to such a decline but a combination of complex factors which must be considered together to understand the full picture.
But as human population numbers rise, and settlements are established that require the cutting of trees, habitat loss becomes a huge threat to all species of giraffe.
Giraffes occur in countries with the highest fertility rates in the world, so human encroachment is a threat that will only continue to grow.
Many giraffe populations are already severely fragmented, in addition to being at least 50 percent smaller than reported half a century ago in many regions.
In the wild, giraffes have few predators aside from humans. Their size, particularly their legs and feet, give them a mighty kick that can deter even big cats like lions and leopards. Though they have been known to be victims of crocodiles, it is not a common occurrence. Giraffe babies, or calves, often fall prey to herds of carnivores, but, for the most part, giraffes are safe within their natural ecosystem.
Poaching also plays a major role in the decline, particularly in Tanzania, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and which actually forms a more disturbing part of a wider issue.
In West Africa, giraffes are hunted for their tails, their pelts, and their meat. Many animals are killed in order to feed those who hunt, but the demand from other countries for bush meat is also high (and much of which is actually exported to Europe and elsewhere). And, as human populations rise, the demand for meat will only cause further detriment to giraffe populations living in proximity.
Giraffes are susceptible to poaching as they are largely docile animals that are easy to kill and provide a lot of meat.
Sadly, it’s not just the meat that is in high demand.
Around ten years ago, a belief in the healing power of giraffe bone marrow and brains sprang up, with practitioners touting their ability to protect and cure people of HIV/AIDS. Severed giraffe heads and bones can fetch up to $140 each, making this a highly tempting option for potential poachers.
Giraffe conservation status
Giraffes can still be found in 21 African countries, and in zoos in almost every part of the world.
In the wild, they can be found in a number of differently protected areas, from government-run national parks to private or communal lands.
Despite an increased focus on giraffe conservation in many of these zones, the wide distribution of giraffes across Africa makes their conservation plan complex at best.
How can you help giraffes?
Though many governments are enacting new habitat management and protection for giraffes through conservation initiatives and improved law enforcement, community awareness is still struggling to keep up.
Many zoos have robust giraffe-specific conservation programs, and need support in particular because these species are not on the public’s radar as one that is in danger of going extinct. Check your local zoo and see how they are helping giraffes in the wild.
And, of course, spreading the word about the marvels of the giraffe, extending past just its long neck.
Giraffes are ubiquitous in our minds and hearts, as they have infiltrated our culture of imagination and wonder with their graceful splendor. It is hard to imagine that they are not equally abundant in the wild, but the assumption that they are and the subsequent lack of public support for conservation programs to save them is putting the survival of the giraffe across Africa in jeopardy.
As an iconic animal of Africa’s savannah, it would be heartbreaking to lose the symbol of the wild – that silhouette of the giraffe on the sunset horizon of the savannah, yet it could be a strong possibility if action is not taken soon.