A giraffe is an African mammal which is widely known, thanks to its incredible height. Giraffes are the tallest of land animals, with unique body structures which are specially adapted to their way of life. Many zoos around the world keep giraffes for people who want to visit these remarkable even-toed ungulates in person, and they can also be visited in Africa on safari trips.
The scientific name for the giraffe is Giraffa camelopardalis. The “giraffa” is derived from the Arabic word zirafa, which means “giraffe.” The “camelopardalis” is a reference to the fact that early visitors to Africa thought that giraffes might be a cross between camels and leopards, since they have the humped backs of camels and the spots of leopards. Needless to say, this is not the case, but the scientific name of the animal does remind us of its colorful history.
At first sight, a giraffe looks rather bizarre. The animals have long necks and legs, with the front legs being slightly longer than the back legs, so that giraffes appear to have a sloped or humped body structure. A giraffe's coat is tawny, with orangish to brown spots. Several giraffe subspecies can be found throughout Africa with subtle differences, but all of them share the same basic traits.
Several things about a giraffe's body are unique, to support its strange body structure. Giraffes have seven vertebrae in their necks, just like other mammals, but these vertebrae are extremely elongated, and separated with very flexible joints. Giraffes also have thick, muscular shoulders to support their necks, and a unique circulatory system to ensure that blood is pumped evenly through the body. They also have dark purple prehensile tongues which are used to grasp and manipulate things.
In Africa, giraffes fill a unique ecological niche, feeding on the canopy of trees, especially the thorny acacia tree. Their height ensures that they have little competition for food. Contrary to popular belief, giraffes can both lie down and lower their heads, thanks to special adaptations in their circulatory systems which prevent their heads from filling with blood when lowered below their hearts.
Many female giraffes live in small social groups, while males have been known to fight over territory and partners. When giraffes mate, a calf is born around 14 months later; female giraffes stand to give birth, and the calves are usually up and about within a few hours. The lifespan of a giraffe is around 20 years, with captive giraffes generally living longer.