The giraffe is the tallest of all land animals. He remains standing most of the time, as lying down makes it vulnerable to attacks. It moves gracefully in loose herds across the Afican savannah.
The giraffe seems to be an evolutionary mistake, yet individual body shape and great height has made it one of the most successful large mammals of the African savannah.
Sometimes described as an animal assembled from spare parts, the giraffe’s extraordinary height is a great advantage for feeding and defense. His neck has seven vertebrae, like most mammals, but they are extremely elongated and enlarged. His powerful legs are up to 6'6" in length and are used to lash out in defense. The heart has to create enormous pressure to pump blood to the head. Neck arteries have special valves that reduce this pressure to prevent brain damage when the giraffe lowers its head. His tongue, which is up to 18” long, is bright blue and is used with the muscular upper lip to gather and pull buds and leaves from vegetation. Its knob tipped horns are not true horns, but bony extensions of the skull.
The giraffe thrives in a variety of habitats south of the Sahara, although it avoids true desert, dense rainforest, marshes and boggy ground. The hoofs of the giraffe are narrow and don’t splay under its weight to stop it from sinking in soft ground. The giraffe’s greatest advantage, is its ability to survive for long periods without water, it can extract all it needs from the vegetation it eats. The giraffe prefers light woodland or grassland with scattered trees on the African savannah.
Giraffes congregate in loose herds of up to 12 members. Giraffes are gregarious, but it’s the individual that is the basic social unit in giraffe society. Only mothers and calves form bonds. Herding simply gives individuals a better chance of avoiding predators. A giraffe can easily crush the skull of a lion by lashing out with its long legs, but it usually runs away. It is able to spot a predator from a distance, a herd can make an early escape, he can run at 33 mph.
No other browsing animal can reach the upper parts of trees that provide the giraffe’s food. The giraffe uses its long, flexible tongue and muscular upper lip to tear leaves from branches. Males and females often have different feeding strategies. Males stretch their necks high to reach the top of taller trees, females prefer to bend over the tops of smaller trees and bushes.
A sexually mature male seeks out females in heat, but usually has to face competition from other males. The dominant male leaves the female after mating and the female joins a herd during her pregnancy. The female seeks a safe area away from the herd to give birth, about two weeks after birth, mother and calf rejoin the herd. When young giraffes reach sexual maturity, from three to four years, females remain in their mother’s territory while young males band together in search of breeding females.
The giraffe does not have any special conservation status, most of its populations are still thriving. Many herds of giraffe are protected from hunters in national parks.