What's Up With the Giraffe?
Hoofs help a giraffe in many ways. First, they allow the animal to run quickly. Sometimes a giraffe must run from an attacking lion. If the giraffe had flat feet, it couldn’t move so fast. But a giraffe on its toes can really go.
Second, hoofs help a giraffe defend itself. A giraffe can kick hard with its sharp hoofs. One strong blow can kill a lion.
Third, hoofs help a giraffe stand and walk. A baby giraffe can stand up within an hour after being born—thanks to those hoofs.
Like all mammals, giraffes give birth to live young. A baby giraffe is called a calf. After a calf is born, it stays close to its mother. The calf depends on its mother for food and protection. A calf drinks its mother’s milk for 9 or 10 months. It also starts to eat green plants at the age of 2 weeks.
A calf may stand about 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall at birth. That is about as tall as an adult man. The calf weighs about 150 pounds (68 kilograms).
A giraffe is one of the few animals born with horns. Most other hoofed mammals with horns grow their horns when they are older. Giraffe horns start as small, bony lumps covered with skin and hair. The lumps grow longer as the calf grows bigger.
A calf grows quickly. In its first year, it may grow about 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) a week. By its first birthday, the giraffe may already stand 10 feet (3 meters) tall!
Baby giraffes stay close to their mothers for about a year. But part of each day, the mothers must go off to find food for themselves. The calves stay behind in a group. One adult female giraffe watches over the group. She may even give milk to a calf that is hungry.
Young giraffes are not allowed to go off on their own to look for food. That would be too dangerous. Calves have many enemies that wait to attack them. Their enemies include lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, and crocodiles. The calves are much safer with their baby sitter watching over them!
Inside a giraffe’s neck are seven bones. These bones and a giraffe’s backbone are its vertebrae (VUR tuh bree). Most other mammals, including humans, also have seven neck bones. But a giraffe’s neck bones are much longer. Each bone is about 10 inches (25 centimeters) long.
A giraffe’s neck also holds a windpipe. The windpipe carries air from the animal’s nose and mouth to its lungs. A giraffe’s lungs are extra large. They pump air through the long neck.
A giraffe’s neck muscles are very strong. They support the long, heavy neck bones. When a giraffe lifts its head and neck, it is lifting about 550 pounds (250 kilograms).
Giraffes use their necks in many ways. They use them to reach tall tree leaves to eat. Two fighting giraffes push their necks against each other.
When a giraffe browses, it eats leaves and buds from trees and bushes. Like most hoofed mammals, giraffes only eat plants. The giraffe uses its upper lip and long tongue to strip the leaves from the tree.
Giraffes are the only animals that can reach the high treetops without climbing. Giraffes don’t have to share their food with other creatures while browsing. In Africa, many trees end up with flat tops after giraffes eat all their top leaves and branches.
One of a giraffe’s favorite foods is acacia (uh KAY shuh) leaves. Acacia trees have very sharp thorns. But the thorns don’t hurt a giraffe as it eats. A giraffe’s thick, hairy lips protect it as it browses.
Giraffes tend to eat, off and on, all day long. At first, they chew their food very little before swallowing it. Later, they bring the cud, or food, back up to their mouths and chew it again. This makes the food easier to digest.
A giraffe’s neck is long enough to reach a high treetop. Yet it is too short to reach the ground. That makes it hard for a giraffe to bend down for water. To get a drink, a giraffe must first spread its front legs wide apart. Then it lowers its head to the water.
A giraffe drinks for a few seconds at a time. After five or six drinks, the giraffe is full. These drinks may add up to more than 10 gallons (37.9 liters) of water!
Giraffes are very cautious at waterholes. While bending down to drink, giraffes cannot see enemies that can be coming up on them from behind. Often, giraffes go to a waterhole in a group. Several giraffes stay on guard while the others drink.
Giraffes can go several days without drinking water. That’s because the acacia leaves they eat are very moist. Also, giraffes try to conserve their energy. So they don’t often feel thirsty.
Giraffes travel in groups, or herds, to protect themselves from enemies. A lion may attack a giraffe that is by itself. But the lion is less likely to attack a giraffe in a herd. There’s safety in numbers!
The size of a giraffe herd often changes. A giraffe may leave the herd to be by itself. Or it may leave one herd to join another. At any time, a herd may have 50 or more giraffes. Or it may have as few as 3 or 4.
Male giraffes often roam the grasslands by themselves. Females usually stay in pairs or small groups. A male will join the female herd when a member of the herd is ready to mate.
A giraffe walks differently from most other four-legged animals. First it moves both feet on one side of its body. Then it moves both feet on the other side. This causes the giraffe to rock from side to side as it walks. Get down on your hands and knees and try to move that way. It feels weird, right?
Giraffes may rock, but they do just fine as runners. A giraffe can gallop up to 35 miles (56.5 kilometers) an hour. Just don’t expect it to move that fast for long. Giraffes tire very easily. In general, they would much rather walk than run.
Getting into a comfortable position for sleep is not easy for a giraffe. That’s why a giraffe often sleeps standing up. It simply lowers its neck and tail and lets its eyelids droop.
Sometimes a giraffe will bend its legs and lie down to sleep. It holds its neck up straight, or it rests it on its hip or on a tree branch. When a herd lies down, one member always stays awake to watch.
No matter how they rest, giraffes get very little real sleep. At night, they usually fall into a deep sleep for only three to five minutes at a time. They enjoy about five deep sleeps a night.
Many African animals find giraffes to be good company. Since giraffes are so tall, they are excellent “lookout towers.” They can spot danger long before other animals. Sometimes, giraffes in a herd will suddenly turn their heads to stare in one direction. That tells other animals that danger may lie ahead.
Giraffes are usually very calm and gentle. They do not hunt or chase after other animals. They do not like to fight. They would rather run away than fight. But giraffes will defend themselves if a lion attacks them.
One of the giraffe’s best friends is the tiny tickbird. Tickbirds ride on the giraffe’s body. They eat ticks and other insects off the giraffe’s coat. The bird helps the giraffe keep clean. At the same time, the giraffe’s ticks make a good meal for the birds.
Only one animal is closely related to the giraffe. It is the okapi (oh KAH pee). It is a rare animal that lives near the Congo River in Africa.
Like the giraffe, the male okapi has two small horns on its head. A female okapi does not grow horns. An okapi’s body slopes downward like a giraffe’s. And the okapi has a long black tongue to strip leaves off trees. It also uses its tongue to wash its own eyes!
Strangely, the okapi hardly looks like a giraffe. In fact, it looks more like a horse or a zebra. The okapi stands about 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall. Its neck is much shorter than a giraffe’s. And its legs have stripes like a zebra’s.