Giraffes are one of the most iconic animals of Africa – their long necks stretching into the dazzling blue sky above the bush! We are lucky enough to work in amongst so many beautiful species and thought for this post, given recent IUCN updates, we would focus on one of our favourites to see while we are out and about, delving into and sharing a few facts about this extraordinary animal!
Giraffes are the tallest mammal on earth, and the collective terms for them are appropriately epic! A stationary group is known as a tower, while when on the move they are known as a journey. The social structure of giraffe is changeable, with group composition freely adjusting throughout days and weeks, most notably through males joining female groups to mate, before returning to a solo or bachelor herd existence.
There is, interestingly, still some exploring to do regarding sub-species of giraffe. Currently there are nine sub-species recognised across Africa, but with some suggestions that some should perhaps be individual species in their own right. Research continues to investigate the genetics of these sub-species, particularly noticing differences in size and coat patterns amongst other genetic avenues. In the same way as human fingerprints are unique, so are giraffe coat patterns, per individual as well as sub-species. Although it is true that male giraffes coats darken with age, the variations in sub-species coat patterns can trick the untrained eye – better to check the ‘horns’ (see below)! The Giraffe Conservation Foundation are coming increasingly closer to solving the species/sub-species debate having now analysed samples from most major populations across Africa. The current defined sub-species of giraffe are: West African, Nubian, Kordofan, South African, Reticulated, Angolan, Thornicroft’s, Rothschild’s and the Massai.
Fascinatingly the giraffe is also related to the okapi (Okapia johnstoni), found in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. While both male and female giraffe have ossicones, curiously only male okapi have them.
Ossicones are the ‘horns’ on the giraffe’s head. These are formed from cartilage and fuse with the skull later in life, lying flat and unattached from the skull at birth to avoid any injuries. Females have thinner ossicones and they remain hairy, while the thicker male ossicones often go bald through fighting – known as necking, where the males swing their heads and necks in powerful blows against their opponent. Despite giraffe having such a long neck, they actually have the same number of vertebrae in the neck as humans – only somewhat larger! In addition to using their necks for necking, it provides quite an advantage for feeding, being able to reach the higher, otherwise untouched branches of trees, as well as benefiting surveillance of potential threats.
Returning to the coat pattern of the giraffes, while unique, they also assist with thermoregulation. Around each patch there is a large blood vessel that then forms a network of smaller blood vessels directly underneath the patch. When the giraffe is too hot they are able to send blood into these tiny networks in the middle of their patches in order to release more heat and thus reduce body temperature! A giraffe’s heart is surprisingly small for the size of the animal, but beats extremely fast (up to 170 times a minute) in order to provide enough blood around the body. They have an extremely high blood pressure (not because they are always angry!), but in order to send blood up their long necks and fight gravity to keep the brain well supplied.
Despite being listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List, with a population of about 70,000 across Africa, as of 2016, two sub-species, West African and Rothschild’s, are considered ‘Endangered’, while recently the Nubian and Kordofan have been declared as ‘Critically Endangered’. Giraffe numbers are believed to have fallen by approximately 40% in recent times and, as is unfortunately a very recurring story, remain in danger of falling further through habitat loss, fragmentation, human-infringement and poaching.
Our final fact to share is quite a fun one we think! The scientific name for giraffe is Giraffa camelopardalis – camelopard being an old English word for giraffe based on the Ancient Greek for camel and leopard, that people felt giraffe resembled!
Do you have any other fun facts about giraffe? Share them with us by commenting on this post!