Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

Facts

The giraffe is the tallest land animal in the world.  A male stands up to 5.5m high, and weighs nearly 2 tonnes.

How is a giraffe classified?

Living things can be organised into different groups.  Species that are alike are grouped together.  This is called classification.

Class:     Mammals
Order:    Artiodactyla
Family:     Giraffidae
Species:     Giraffa camelopardalis

The giraffe’s Latin name is derived from its Roman name ‘camelopards’.  Ancient Romans thought giraffes resembled camels with leopards’ spots!  The English name ‘giraffe’ is derived from the Italian name giraffe, from the Arabic word ‘ziraafa’, which means an ‘assemblage of animals’.  Nine subspecies of giraffe exist in Africa, with distinctive markings and colouring.  A giraffe’s patchy coat is believed to have evolved as a camouflage, helping an animal to blend into its background when feeding amongst trees.

Giraffes are special

The awe-inspiring giraffe is truly unique and unmistakable.  These gentle, gigantic animals have a fragile beauty, but their elongated, seemingly spindly legs are extremely strong and can move a giraffe at over 50km per hour and can kick with great force.

Distribution

The nine subspecies are found in Africa, south of the Sahara.  Most are found in eastern and southern Africa, but residual populations survive in western Africa. 

Habitat

Giraffes live in open woodlands or wooded grassland savannah.

Diet

Giraffes are herbivores and browse up to 63kg of leaves and twigs each day from over 100 different trees and shrubs, but preferring acacia species. Because of their moisture-rich diet of leaves, giraffes can go for weeks without drinking, but usually seek water every few days.  Their splay-legged drinking stance leaves them vulnerable to predators.

Adaptations

A giraffe’s great height, long legs, neck, and tongue (45cm!) enables it to reach leaves on the top of tree-tops, way out of reach to other species.  But despite its long neck, the giraffe only has seven neck vertebrae, the same number as all mammals, but the bones are simply extremely elongated.  The giraffe’s tongue and lips are very tough, and can withstand sharp thorns.  The giraffe’s giant 10kg (24lb) heart maintains double the blood pressure of other large mammals, in order to ensure a good blood supply to the brain.

Behaviour

Despite their size giraffes are always on the look-out for predators and only sleep for around half an hour at a time.  Giraffes live in herds and tend to drink or sleep in shifts, so one animal can keep a look out for lions, leopard or hyena, which could attack a giraffe calf.

Society

Females gather in loose-knit herds, together with younger males.  Males live in bachelor herds.  Dominant males can fight, swinging their necks against each other.

Reproduction

Giraffes have a 25 year life span.  Females can reproduce throughout the year and dominant males will visit different female herds to find suitable females.  After a 15 month gestation the female gives birth to a single calf.  Babies are 1.8m at birth and grow 2cm a day.  New calves stay close to their mothers, but after a few weeks will join crèche groups.

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