Because of their long necks and legs, giraffes are the tallest animals in the world. Patch coloration and shape can vary within their extensive habitat range. Females are distinguished from males in that the females have shorter, inward-curving horns. In both sexes, a long mane of stiff, brushlike hairs extends from the back of the head to the shoulders. Giraffes exhibit a unique, fluid gait. When walking, the fore and hind legs on the same side appear to move almost in unison. Swift and fleeting, giraffes can gallop up to thirty-three miles per hour. Their gallop can be described as a motion in which the front legs move together and their hind legs move forward and outward, enveloping the forelegs in a unique rhythmic pattern. Long and graceful, their sleek necks swing back and forth rhythmically with their legs. The neck has remarkable range of motion. A system of blood vessels and valves in the neck protects the brain and reduces blood pressure when the animal lowers its head.
Although some may feed at night, giraffes are classified as herbivorous diurnal eaters. They are browsers, and competition for food is greatly reduced because of the height at which they feed. The male feeds at greater heights, with his head stretched upward, whereas the female feeds at lower heights, often bending her head and neck to reach the leaves. Giraffes feed mainly on the highly nutritious leaves, fruit, and flowers of acacia trees. Their long, dexterous tongues strip leaves from the acacia twigs. Giraffes often consume soil and bones to balance the phosphorus and calcium in their blood. When feeding on sprouted vegetation and when drinking water, giraffes splay their front legs and bend their knees. In such a position, they are vulnerable to predators, especially lions. Giraffes can go without water for days.
Protection, Defense, and Communication
Generally docile creatures, giraffes may kill other animals with a kick of a fore or hind hoof. Their heads, used like a knight's mace, land formidable blows on the body or legs of opponents. The effective use of their heads as weapons is enhanced by the physical structure of horns and knobs. The skull bone is solid and thick, so that its force can result in a fatal blow. The giraffe's own head is protected by extensive sinuses, which absorb shock. Giraffes snort, grunt, bleat, bellow, and moo to communicate. Because of their height, giraffes' sense of smell is not as keen as other animals. However, their sensitivity to sound and their visual acuity more than compensate for their underdeveloped sense of smell.
Reproduction and Birth
Mixed herds of variable numbers have been recorded in the field. Old males are often solitary. About a day before mating, the female becomes sexually attractive. At the onset of mating, the male licks the female's genitals and catches her urine on his tongue. Chemical signals in her urine are detected by flehmen as the male's Jacobson's organ becomes activated. The male remains with the female in heat unless he is displaced by a higher-ranking challenger. The female gives birth in cover, with her back legs bent to reduce the height from which the calf falls. Initially, the mother is alone with her calf, but later she may form a nursery group assisted by other females. The calf stands within five minutes of birth and suckles within the hour. The calf becomes independent of the mother around the sixteenth month. Play behavior, called nose-to-nose sniffing, between the young cements social bonds between them.
Genus and species: Giraffa camelopardalis, with nine subspecies
Geographical location: Africa, south of the Sahara
Habitat: Dry, open savanna biomes, covered with bush and acacia trees
Gestational period: About 450 days
Life span: Up to twenty-five years in the wild; up to twenty-eight years in captivity
Special anatomy: A long neck with seven vertebrae (characteristic of all mammals); adult height of between fifteen and eighteen feet; chestnut brown patches of various sizes and shapes; sloping back ending in a long, tufted tail; a pair of horns on top of the head
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