Giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis
TAXONOMY & NOMENCLATURE
(Colbert & Morales, 1990)(Gotch, 1995)
(Kingdon, 1979, 1997)(Lacky & LaRue, 1997)(MacClintock, 1973)
Describer (Date): Linnaeus, 1758
Genus: Okapi (Okapi)
Species: Giraffa camelopardalis
Subspecies: G. c. angolensis (Angolan Giraffe)
G. c. antiquiorum (Kordofan Giraffe)
G. c. camelopardalis (Nubian Giraffe)
G. c. giraffa (Southern/South African Giraffe)
G. c. peralta (Nigerian/West African Giraffe)
G. c. reticulata (Reticulated Giraffe)
G. c. rothschildi (Baringo/Rothschild's/Uganda Giraffe)
G. c. thornicrofti (Thornicroft's Giraffe)
G. c. tippelskirchi (Masai Giraffe)
- Nine subspecies have been described based on type of spotting
pattern, color, and geographic origin.
- But subspecies can and do readily interbreed, especially in
captivity, resulting in hybrids with an intermediate
- Giraffe/Giraffa comes from the Arabic word "zarafah",
which means "one who walks swiftly" (Gotch, 1995).
- Camelopardalis = camel (camelus), leopard (pardus);
Latin. Centuries ago, it was thought that giraffes were part camel and
- Local names: Twiga (Swahili), Nduida (Kikuyu), Oloodo-kirrangata
(Masai). There are numerous other names in various local languages
-Kingdon (1979) lists 20.
- Earliest giraffid: Palaeotragus from the Miocene of Asia,
approximately 20 million years ago. Looked very similar to the modern
okapi -medium sized, with normal length limbs and neck, and two small,
- Giraffids were once very widespread and diverse. Fossils have
been found from Greece, Austria, Hungary, the Balkans, Spain, the
Middle East, Mongolia, China, Japan, Russia, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar
and Africa. Many species had large, stocky bodies and various types of
heavy, ornate horns.
- Closest living relative: Okapi
- Closest relative to the Giraffidae: Cervidae (deer)
DISTRIBUTION & HABITAT
(Dagg, 1971)(East, 1998)(Estes, 1991)(Lacky & LaRue, 1997)
from East 1998. Click on map for
- 10,000 years ago, present throughout Africa
- As northern Africa became drier, eventually turning into desert,
giraffes disappeared from northern and Saharan Africa.
- 4,000 years ago disappeared from Egypt; 1,400 years ago
disappeared from Morocco.
- Present: Patchy, non-continuous distribution in portions of
Sub-Saharan Africa. Not present in most of western, central, and far
- Savannahs, especially where Acacia, Commiphora and Terminalia
- Semi-arid, open woodlands with scattered trees and bushes.
- Not in deserts, mesic forests, or mountains.
(Estes, 1991)(Kingdon, 1997)(MacClintock, 1973)
Height: Males up to 5.5 m (18 ft); females up to 4.5
m (15 ft)
Body Weight: Males 800 -1930 kg (1,764 - 4,255 lbs);
females 550-1180 kg (1,212 - 2,601 lbs)
Head/Body Length: Males 3.8 - 4.7 m (12.5 - 15.4 ft)
Tail Length: 80 - 100 cm (31 - 39 in)
- Tallest mammal, with very long neck.
- Short, stiff mane and long tuft of hair at the end of the tail.
- Shoulders high, sloping down to hind quarters. Legs of approximately
equal size. Apparent slope caused by tall dorsal spines on the
- No upper incisors or canines
- Not true horns; specific to the Giraffidae
- Permanent, bony, and unbranched. Covered with skin and hair.
- Up to 13.5 cm (5.3 in).
- A single pair present in males and females; some populations have
additional knobs (may look like smaller horns) on center of
forehead in front of main pair, or behind the ears. See Sexual
Dimorphism below for differences between male and female horns.
- See Life Stages regarding horn development
- Long (50 cm, 20 in.), prehensile tongue.
- Large, brown eyes, bordered by long, black lashes.
- Large, hooved feet.
- Background is medium to reddish brown. Broken into splotches by buff
- The color tends to darken with age, especially in males, but the
pattern does not change.
- Each subspecies has a characteristic
type of color and pattern.
- Individuals can be recognized by their unique markings.
- Rarely, individuals without spots are born -all dark (almost black),
tan (spots barely visible), or white (although no true albinos have
|Baringo giraffe hide
||Reticulated giraffe hide
Other Physical Characteristics
- Size: Males quite a bit taller and heavier than females.
- Males: Horns are larger; ends have hairless knobs
- Females and young: ends are straight and tufted with hair;
- The skull of a mature male has extensive ossification over front
of skull, above eyes, and on rostrum. Typically weighs 2-3 times that
of a female. Females may have additional bony knobs on forehead, like
the male, but do not have such extensive bony areas.
- Neck: Like other mammals, possess only 7 cervical vertebrae.
Each has been greatly elongated to produce the longest mammalian neck.
- Color vision: Can distinguish between red, orange, yellow-green,
green, blue and violet.
- Circulatory System: Giraffes have specializations that regulate
blood flow to the head. Giraffes are up to 18 feet tall, and one would
expect blood to rush to the brain when a giraffe lowers its head to
drink, or to drain away from the brain when the head is lifted back
up. Either scenario could result in fainting.
- Large Heart: The heart must work against gravity to pump
blood up to the head when it is erect. The heart is approximately
61 cm (24 in.) long, weighs 11 kg (25 lbs), and can pump 60 - 75
liters (16-20 gallons) of blood per minute.
- Valves and large veins: The jugular vein and its offshoots
contain numerous one-way valves to prevent blood from back
flowing to the brain, when the head is lowered. Acting as a blood
reservoir, the jugular vein is large (2.5 cm, =1 inch, in
diameter), and elastic so that it can stretch, counteracting the
force of gravity on the blood.
- Muscle fibers: Muscle fibers surrounding the veins leading
to the heart slow the flow of blood when the head is raised
BEHAVIOR & ECOLOGY
(Apfelbach, 1990) (Coe, 1967) (Estes, 1991)
(Fennessy et al., 2001) (Guggisberg 1969) (Innis, 1958)
(Le Pendu et al., 2000) (Leuthold & Leuthold, 1978)
- Active during the day and night.
- Daytime: Most active during the early and late hours of the day.
The hottest part of the day is often spent resting and ruminating. In
Transvaal, September - December, 55-83 % of the day (6 AM - 6 PM) was
spent browsing (Innis, 1958).
- Night: During the night most time is spent ruminating (40-49%)
and feeding (22-34%). The rest of the time is spent resting/sleeping.
More active on nights with bright moonshine (Estes, 1991).
- Bouts of sleep during the day and night usually last no more
than a couple of hours at a time.
- Sleep is usually shallow, with ears twitching and eyes half
- During the shallow sleep, a deeper sleep may be reached but
typically only lasts for 5-10 minutes at a time.
- Will lie down during part of the night, but most of the time
sleep standing up.
- Social, unlike okapi which are fairly solitary, but do not tend to form
long lasting bonds.
- Loose herds of up to about 50 individuals. Group size usually much
smaller. No leader, and little coordination among individuals. May be
spread out over large distances. Composition of individuals changes
constantly, even within a 24 hour period.
- Because of well developed eyesight and high vantage point, able to stay
in communication with one another even if physically very far apart.
- Females are very social when not guarding a newborn and are usually
found in congregations of other females and young. Young females often
stay in their natal areas.
- Sub adult males tend to be part of a bachelor herd, and usually leave
their natal area. Adult males become more solitary.
- Although there is sometimes a segregation between sexes, herds can be
composed of any combination of males, females, young, and adults.
- Home ranges
- Average home ranges, some examples from Kenya:
- El Karama Ranch, 14 km2 (5 mi2).
- Nairobi National Park, 73.5 km2 (28 mi2).
- Tsavo National Park, Kenya 164 km2 (63 mi2).
- Varies tremendously among individuals and between wet and dry
season, from 5 to 654 km2 (2 - 252.5 mi2).
- During the dry season home range is much more constricted, and
concentrated near water than during rainy season.
- High level of overlap between individuals (both males and
- Males use horns and heavily ossified skulls during aggressive
encounters with one another. Head slams into neck and body of another
individual, like a club.
- Less intense encounters between males include mutual neck and head
rubbing (="necking"), and leaning into one another, possibly
to assess strength and weight of opponent.
- Once dominance has been established, the two combatants often coexists
peacefully after a fight. The victor does not chase the loser out of
- Young calves can be very playful, jumping and running near the mother.
- Calves do not tend to chase each other.
- Older, immature males play-fight with one another.
- Dominance: Erect with straight neck and head held high, stretch
neck out at angle with chin up, stiff legged approach. Often,
dominance challenge is won by the individual who stands the tallest.
- Submissive: Head and ears held downward, retreat.
- Much more important than in Okapi, which rely more on scent and
hearing. This is exemplified by a giraffe's large eyes and preference
for open savannahs, as opposed to closed forests.
- Although they do possess vocal chords, giraffes vocalize much less than
- Types of vocalizations that have been reported:
- Alarm snort
- Bleating or mewing by calves
- "Roaring bellow" by females looking for their young
- "Raucous cough" by males during courtship
- Also moaning, snoring, hissing, and flutelike sounds.
- Unlike okapi, do not have scent glands on hooves.
- Depend on vision more than sense of smell for awareness of environment.
- Males sniff females to determine reproductive status.
- Mature males emit strong body odor.
- Walking: Unlike most other animals, use the two right limbs
together, then the two left, alternating right and left. Otherwise,
the long front legs would tangle with the hind legs. Camels walk this
- Galloping: Use front legs together, then back, alternating
between front and back. Hind feet stay outside of the forelegs, so
there is no contact. Rabbits run this way. Can run up to 60 km/hr (37
- Jumping: Able to jump over cattle fences.
- Predator defenses:
- Adults: large size, good vision, fast runners, powerful
- Calves are most vulnerable, and use camouflage as most
- Calves grow very fast their first couple of years
(double in size), making them less vulnerable to predation.
- Often seen foraging with other species, such as zebras, antelope, and
ostriches. Giraffes may act as sentinels for the other animals due to
their height and ability to see danger from far away. An alarm
reaction by a giraffe quickly spreads to the other species.
- Oxpecker birds climb all over giraffes, picking off ticks and other
ectoparasites. Their shrill alarm call serves as a warning to other
animals nearby when danger approaches, but it is likely that giraffes
do not need to take advantage of this benefit.
- Piapiacs and cattle egrets take advantage of insects that are stirred
up in the wake of a walking giraffe.
DIET & FEEDING
(Apfelbach, 1990)(Estes, 1991)(Innis, 1958)(Kingdon, 1997)
(Pellew, 1984)(MacClintock, 1973)(Spinage, 1968)
- Browsers: leaves and young shoots. Also eat seeds and pods.
- Up to 100 species of plants recorded for the giraffe's diet.
But, bulk of diet usually made up of only a
few species of trees and woody bushes. Acacia spp. are
favored in all locations. Additional species are different
depending on location, and include the following genera: Combretum,
Commiphora, Terminalia, Harrisonia, Pterocarpus,
Cassia, Lonchocarpus, Grewia.
- Rainy season: eat mostly deciduous species. Dry season: eat
mostly evergreen species.
- Consume 34 - 75 kg (75 - 165 lbs) of browse per day.
- Able to feed at a height unreachable by all other browsers except
for the elephant. This often creates a pruned browse line along
the undersides of trees at a height of about 4.3 - 5.5 m (14-18
- Long, prehensile, sticky tongue enables a giraffe to feed on hard
to reach leaves. Small, thickened papillae of the tongue and lips
protect against thorns.
- Elongated occipital condyles (where the skull attaches to the
neck) enable a giraffe to extend its head to a completely
vertical angle, increasing its reach while browsing.
- Because males are so much taller than females, they will browse in
a higher region of a tree, thereby reducing competition for food.
- Very little chewing when leaves first eaten. As seen in other
ruminants, leaves are quickly swallowed, partially digested, and
then regurgitated so that they may be chewed more thoroughly at a
later time (= "chewing cud"). Can chew cud at any time
of the day.
- Four chambered stomach highly efficient, with numerous, long
papillae on the surface, which greatly increases the surface area
for nutrient absorption, (largest surface area of any ruminant).
- During the wet season, obtain most or all water from the
leaves (and dew) that are consumed.
- During the dry season, drink at least every three days, up to
38 liters (10 gallons) at a time.
- Must kneel on forelegs or spread them wide to reach water
while drinking. The same is true for Okapi, suggesting that
this trait evolved before the giraffe's neck elongated.
REPRODUCTION & DEVELOPMENT
(Estes, 1991)(Foster & Dagg, 1972)(Innis, 1958)
(Lackey & LaRue, 1997)(Leuthold, 1979)(Leuthold & Leuthold, 1978)
(MacClintock, 1973)(Nowak, 1999)(Spinage, 1968)
- Assessment of reproductive receptivity: Solitary male checks females in
a heard by testing odor of urine (="Flehmen", includes lip
curl, helps bring odor to vomeronasal organ).
- The dominant male will often guard the estrus female against other
males, and he is usually the only male in a given area that will get
- He signals his readiness to mate by tapping on the female's hind leg
with his foreleg or resting his chin on her back. He usually follows
her, sometimes for hours, until she allows him to mount her.
- No long term bonds are formed between male and female.
- Estrus cycle: 15 days.
- Breeding occurs throughout the year.
- Births occur during any time of year. Some studies have shown peaks in
the dry months, others show peaks at other times of year (Foster &
Dagg, 1972; Estes, 1991).
- Interbirth interval: 20-22 months (Leuthold and Leuthold, 1978).
- Females tend to return to the same calving area for successive births.
A female gives birth alone. She remains alone with the calf for a week
or more, protecting it against predators, and avoiding other giraffes.
Infant (< 1 year old)
- Litter Size: 1, rarely two.
- Birth Weight: 47-100 kg (104 - 220 lbs)
- Height: 1.7 - 2 m (5.6 - 6.6 ft)
- Female gives birth standing up, and newborns drop to the ground.
- Horns present at birth; formed of small bumps of cartilage, unattached
to skull, covered with skin and tufts of hair.
- Newborns are able to stand in about 5 - 20 minutes, and start suckling
within an hour.
- Predator defense: When too young to defend themselves,
calves remain still, lying on the ground, hiding near a bush or fallen
tree. Mother is often at least 10 - 25 meters (33 - 82 ft) away, and
will often leave the calf alone for several hours at a time as she
travels to water.
- Crèches: After 1-4 weeks, calves may begin group together in
crèches, with mothers standing watch for predators and other dangers.
At this time, many of the mothers will leave for long periods to
browse, and will return to feed their young before dark, and stay
through the night. Sometimes a few females stay behind to care for the
young, but they can be left completely alone for several hours.
- By 3 - 4 months of age, calves begin browsing and ruminating,
although there have been reports of calves tasting leaves when only 3
weeks old .
- At about 4 - 6 months, calves begin to
feed with the female heard.
- Weaning age varies quite a bit (6 - 17 months), but most
commonly begins at 9-12 months.
- Independent of mother at 12 - 18 months of age, but some
association may last a few months longer.
- Males tend to wander farther, at a younger age, than females.
- No difference in behavior or development between subspecies has been
- Horn development
- Horns fully developed at age 4 - 4.5 in males and age 7 in
- Cartilaginous bumps grow and begin to ossify (become bony)
starting at the tip, eventually merging with skull.
- Forehead area becomes more heavily ossified, forming an
additional knob in front of main horns. Present in both
males and females, but the knob on the male may develop into
what looks like a third horn.
- Males: Bony growth continues all over front of skull,
including forehead, over the eyes, and on the nose. Much
more dense than that of females.
- Maturity: females 4 - 5 years; males 7 - 8 years.
- In the wild: Approximate maximum of 26 years, but 15-20 is
more common (Foster & Dagg, 1972; MacClintock, 1973)
- Captivity: The age range of the 8 oldest giraffes
held in captivity -all deceased and all females- is 32 - 40.5 years.
Females live 25% longer than males (Lackey & LaRue, 1997).
- Predation of calves by lions, hyenas, leopards, and wild dogs.
Predation of adults is rare.
- Hunting by humans.
DISEASES AND PATHOLOGY
(Krecek et al, 1990)(MacClintock, 1973)
- Internal parasites:
- Warble fly larvae, Rhinoestrus giraffae - parasitic
maggot that burrows into lining of nose and throat.
- External parasites:
- ~15 species of ticks
- tsetse flies -carriers of trypanosomes (giraffes are immune to
- Rinderpest, infectious viral disease; giraffes less
susceptible than other ruminants, but some individuals can become
temporarily blind or die during an epidemic.
- Anthrax, a bacterial infection.
(Lackey & LaRue, 1997)(Bercovitch, et al., 2003)(Ritter, 1998)
- History of captivity
- 14th century BC: art in King Tutankhamen's tomb shows
- 525 AD: written account of giraffe as one of Ethiopian King's
- 1414 AD: one giraffe was given as a gift to emperor of China,
and had to walk 3,000 miles to get there.
- First arrived in Europe as gifts to various leaders in the
- Zoos in Europe, North America, Japan, and Australia/New
Zealand have the majority of captives.
- San Diego Zoological Society
- 1938: First pair of giraffes come to the Zoo -Lofty and
- Subspecies at the Zoo and Wild Animal Park: Masai (G. c.
tippelskirchi), Reticulated (G.c.reticulata), and
Rothschild's/Uganda (G.c. rothschildi).
- Fresh acacia branches are collected daily from the zoo's
forage farms. In addition, giraffes are fed alfalfa,
carrots, apples, and onions.
- CRES research: Reproductive endocrinology - Fecal samples are
collected daily and then tested for level of progesterone (a
hormone related to reproduction in females). These results
are compared to behavioral observations in order to better
understand how the two are related.
POPULATION AND CONSERVATION STATUS
(East, 1998)(Lacky & LaRue, 1997)(WPZ, 2000)
- Population status, data from East (1998), rounded to nearest hundred.
- Total African population: >110,000.
- Kenya 45,000
- Tanzania >28,900
- Sudan 13,300 recorded in early 1980's but present status unknown due to
- Botswana 11,700
- South Africa >7,900
- Namibia 6,700
- Zimbabwe >5,400
- Central African Republic 1,075
- Zambia 1,200
- The remaining giraffes are present in smaller numbers in Chad,
Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Mali, Namibia, Niger, Republic
of Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, Swaziland, and Uganda.
Threats to survival
- IUCN Status: LR/cd (Lower Risk/conservation dependent)
- CITES Status: Not listed
- Protected in most African countries where they occur.
- Despite reduction from historical distribution, giraffes are still
relatively widespread and not in immediate danger of extinction.
- Subspecies most at risk: G. c. peralta, G. c. antiquorum,
G.c. camelopardalis, G.c. rothschildi, and G. c. thornicroft.
- Breed well in captivity, so collection from the wild for zoos is not
- Hunting by humans for pelts, horns, and meat.
- Competition for land and resources by rapidly growing human population,
resulting in ever decreasing habitat.
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