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What is a Giraffe?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By myharley — On May 01, 2012

I never miss the giraffe exhibit when I visit a zoo. Many years ago, I happened to be there just one day after a baby giraffe was born.

This giraffe was standing up next to her mother and she was already over 6 feet tall when she was born. That is pretty amazing when you think about it.

I watched that little giraffe for a long time before moving on to the next exhibit. I have never seen one that young since then.

I have never seen a giraffe in their natural habitat, but when I visited the Animal Kingdom in Orlando, that was probably as close as I will ever get.

By John57 — On Apr 30, 2012

The long neck is usually the first thing you notice when you see a giraffe. I also love to watch them walk as it seems like it would be hard to do when your front legs are longer than your back legs.

I don't know how long their tongues are, but they look a little bit scary when you watch them stick them all the way out.

Once when I was at the zoo, it was feeding time, and some people were given the chance to feed the giraffes. I think I would be a little nervous with that big, long tongue coming towards me.

By bagley79 — On Apr 29, 2012

I find it interesting to read about those people who have a fear of giraffes. I am just the opposite, and have always been fascinated and intrigued by them.

I don't collect giraffe pieces, but know you can find them if you are looking for them. I have a co-worker who collects giraffes, and I had no trouble finding a giraffe gift for her.

I have one large ceramic giraffe that I have brought with me every time I move. Many objects like that are given away when it is time to move, but I have always kept the giraffe and manage to find a new home for it.

By indemnifyme — On Apr 29, 2012

It's really interesting how the giraffes entire system has adapted to the long neck. As the article said, the vertebrae in the neck are adapted to the giraffe's height, but they the same amount other mammals do. I think it might have made more sense for them to just have more vertebrae, but that's evolution for you.

I also have to admit that I wasn't sure if a giraffe could lie down, or lower their head below their heart for a long period of time. But I guess there lives would probably be pretty unpleasant if they couldn't do those two things!

By KaBoom — On Apr 28, 2012

I never thought about the role of a giraffe in the African eco-system. However, it makes a lot of sense. They have basically no competition for their food, unless you count small animals that live in trees. But really, most of them probably wouldn't make the effort to climb all the way up there to get the leaves.

I think the giraffes long neck definitely gives them an advantage, as far as getting food. On the other hand, being so large probably makes them stand out to predators. So I guess the long neck is a blessing and a curse for the giraffe.

By Azuza — On Apr 27, 2012

@wavy58 - That is kind of a weird fear to have, but I guess most fears are irrational. I mean, it's not like you're very likely to have any kind of real interaction with a giraffe (except for maybe giraffe toys.)

And actually, I don't think giraffe's are very aggressive. After all, they're omnivores. They don't even hunt for their food, so I think this makes them a little bit less likely to be aggressive.

As an aside, you know what safari animal is aggressive and scary? A hippo. You wouldn't think it, but apparently they are quite vicious.

By shell4life — On Apr 27, 2012

@kylee07drg – There sure are a lot of giraffe items available for people who collect them. My sister is crazy about safari animals, and she has many giraffe themed things in her house.

The one that I think is the coolest is the giraffe water globe. It has a mother and baby inside, and the mother is so tall that she had to bend her neck down to fit inside the globe. The baby is underneath the shelter of her neck, and his head only comes to her hip.

I think that having the mother's neck bent really draws attention to how very long giraffe necks actually are. I think that this item could be classified more as artwork than her other collectibles, like her inflatable giraffe chair and her giraffe toothbrush holder.

By cloudel — On Apr 26, 2012

I read a news story awhile back about an animal that has characteristics of a zebra, giraffe, and a horse. It is supposed to be a relative of the giraffe, though it is a lot shorter.

People thought they were extinct, because you could only see them in the Congo, and because of all the fighting there, lots of animals have disappeared. The zebra giraffe has returned, though, and I even got to see a photo of it.

It has a long neck and a dark tongue, along with giraffe-like ears. Its body and the shape of its face resembles that of a horse, though. The legs are black and white striped, just like a zebra.

By wavy58 — On Apr 26, 2012

I was always terrified of giraffes as a kid. I had seen them on nature shows on television, and they were as tall as trees. To me, this made them monsters.

I actually had a panic attack when I saw one at the zoo. I didn't even think about giraffes being there, and I was so fascinated by all the other animals that I didn't even notice the giant giraffes until we were right upon them. I found myself suddenly unable to get a deep breath, and my parents had to take me away from the giraffe cage.

I know this is a strange fear to have, since giraffes are probably harmless to people. Either way, I doubt I will ever see one in the wild, since I live in the U.S.

By kylee07drg — On Apr 25, 2012

My best friend loves giraffes, and she has several decorative and functional giraffe-themed objects around her house. Each one focuses most on the long neck of the animal, since that is what it is most famed for.

She has a huge giraffe-shaped coat rack with pegs all down the long neck. The two small horns on top of the head also serve as coat hangers.

She has a giraffe CD rack. The neck is where the slots for the CDs are, and it can hold thirty of them.

She even has a giraffe soap dispenser. The main body is what holds the soap, and the pump travels up through the long neck. The soap exits the open mouth, which is a little weird, but unique.

By anon31480 — On May 06, 2009

How does the giraffe interact with different species?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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