What About Giraffes!?

They’re fascinating animals, that’s what.

Consider:

You may not be able to talk while breathing through your nose, but a poor giraffe cannot even have a drink of water without putting itself in mortal peril. Watch giraffes before they drink. They survey the waterhole at length and in great detail before they commit, because once they do it takes effort, and precious seconds, to splay themselves into their ungainly, legs-spread stance, and just as much time to clamber back upright.

Valves in giraffes’ necks close when they put their heads down to drink, to keep all their blood from flowing to their heads. That’s why they spread their legs wide apart because they’re apt to get a little light-headed. And that is when the big cats might strike.

Rumbling along a safari track once upon a time, B. (short for Bonnetswe, our guide in the Okavango Delta) told us the single most dramatic thing he had ever seen; it was the time he watched a giraffe kill about ten lions before finally going down to the final five.

If a horse’s kick can seriously injure a man, he grinned, “Imagine the giraffe,” whose foot is as wide as a dinner plate. And so lions usually leave giraffes alone. Except when they’re drinking.

As it happens, and thankfully (if you’re the giraffe) they needn’t drink more than every second or third day. To minimize the time they have to spend in that vulnerable stance they manage to get most of the moisture they require from the leaves they eat (For this same reason they need not migrate).

Consider the browsing life of a giraffe. While other animals compete for food on the ground, up in the trees, up there, if you’re a giraffe, it’s mine, all mine. Which means giraffes can afford to be discerning eaters.

Using half meter long prehensile black tongues, they take branches in their mouths and pull their heads away, leaves along with them. Their preferred leaves are thorny acacia. They grind the thorns between their molars (In the Okavango the acacia is known as the toothpick tree. They also use their thorns as sewing needles.)

Now, every bit of explanatory science I have ever seen notes the giraffe’s tongue is prehensile, and then goes on as if everybody knows what that means. What prehensile means is “adapted for holding,” from the Latin prehendere, “to grasp.” Unlike a giraffe’s hoof or a dog’s paw, our hands are prehensile, in the sense that we have opposable thumbs.

The giraffe uses his up to eighteen-inch tongue to slide up a branch and grab a bunch of twigs and leaves (They prefer acacia, which are important sources of calcium and protein. Plus, tender acacia twigs may contain 74 percent water.). Nobody except maybe the largest elephant can reach twenty feet from the ground to eat, and you can see this at work in areas rife with giraffes, as they create a “browse line” along the trees.

But if eating is a walk in the wildlife park, with the pick of only the very best leaves in the tree, it takes a lot of leaves – and a lot of time – for a giraffe to get his fill. A 3000-pound bull needs around 75 pounds of food a day, and it may take him three-quarters of the day to get it.

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Charles Darwin developed a theory of natural selection but he didn’t claim it was efficient. To the contrary, he called it clumsy, wasteful and blundering.

Clumsy or not, evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology David P. Barash points out that natural selection has to work with what it has got.

In the giraffe, he writes, “natural selection has produced a creature that on the one hand is spectacularly adapted to its peculiar ecological niche” and on the other is a poster child for Darwin’s clumsy, wasteful and blundering.

Barash points out that to pump blood to the head, seven feet over its heart, giraffes require “exceptionally high” blood pressure. To keep blood from remaining in their feet they have “evolved the equivalent of compression stockings” (which would also be useful for visiting Americans on the long plane ride to Africa to see them).

Barash notes “giraffes are fully six feet taller than other competing browsers, which would seem to argue that competitive foraging as such hasn’t been the main driving pressure behind their altitudinal evolution.” And thus he coyly presents a peculiar practice of male giraffes that he suggests could have furthered positive evolutionary selection for those long necks.

During the rut, male giraffes will stand shoulder to shoulder, parallel with one another and use their necks, as Barash puts it, “roughly like a medieval ball-and-chain weapon, or flail.”

And this can hurt. Giraffe horns, called “ossicones,” are harder than the keratin of cattle horns. They are skin-covered cartilage, actually fused to the animal’s skull, that over time hardens into bone. Only the giraffe and okapi [which deserves its own article] have ossicones.

Giraffes hammer each other with their heads until one of the opponents gives up and cedes dominance. Barash speculates that since the longer the neck, the more force behind each blow, females may prefer long-necked giraffes, and this preference may be passed along genetically. This is the “necks for sex” hypothesis.

At least that is one idea. Cynthia Moss’s 1973 Portraits in the Wild precedes Barash’s work, and back then she was having none of it. To Moss, “A necking match is a lovely sight.” She calls it “gentle sparring,” punctuated by pauses to stare into the distance for some time, affecting “a slight air of superiority.”

Moss notes too that giraffes are different in different places. She cites different researchers’ variable findings.

Giraffes may be found “singly, in twos and threes, and in herds of up to fifty.” One of the researchers she cites, Carlos Mejia, says “They are gregarious but they don’t interact.” Mejia, she says, can’t figure out why they come together at all.

She found researchers agreed that giraffes’ social structures are loose, open, “with giraffes coming and going as they please.”

On the one hand, in Mejia’s study in Tanzania herds may be made up of “males, females, and young, all males or all females, or any combination….” and a “herd rarely comprises the same individuals for more than a few consecutive days.”

On the other, “the sexes in Nairobi park show distinct preferences for different areas. The females and young stay on the plains, whereas the males tend to stay in the forested area.”

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In the Thula Thula Royal Zulu Game Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal, we once saw a very baby calf, so newborn that it only just reached its mother’s knees, far below her body. She kept her calf tight to her side and remained most attentive to us, but that after-the-fact tenderness doesn’t cover up for the brutality of birth.

The giraffe calf receives a jarring first wake up call, being dropped head first some 5-1/2 feet from the womb to the ground, but it is soon standing, close to six feet tall and weighing 150 pounds.

And they grow so fast! In their first year some four feet, and Cynthia Moss cites reports that they can grow nine inches in a single week.

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As a ruminant, the giraffe swallows its food, which must then be rechewed. Ruminants have a four-chambered stomach. Received by the reticulum, the vegetation forms into fist-sized balls and is regurgitated, chewed, swallowed and then passed into the other chambers, the rumen, omasum and abomasum, all in the process of digestion.

This is a three, four, five hour a day process that we call “chewing the cud” in the farm animals back home. All the ruminant are mammals, including yaks and goats and sheep, deer and antelopes and cows.

All that eating takes up most of a giraffes’ day. Moss tells us that in a giraffe’s day no more than five to thirty minutes at a time are spent sleeping. And even then, giraffes, especially moms with young babies, may sleep with one eye open, a practice they share with flying things like bats, ducks and chickens and, it is said, dolphins too.

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If giraffes ran like most other hoofstock, their extra-long legs would be liable to get tangled up, so they move both their legs on one side and then the other, alternating sides. This is called “pacing” and has the effect of making the giraffe seem to run in slow motion when in fact those long legs cover prodigious ground. The giraffe can flee a pursuer at 55 kilometers per hour, though not for sustained periods.

In fact, the word giraffe comes from “zafarah,” for “one who walks swiftly.” Zafarah is Arabic, from the land of camels, and the camel runs like the giraffe; it also “paces.” Perhaps that similarity half accounts for the giraffes’ Latin species name, camelopardalis. The “leopardalis” part? There was an archaic belief that the giraffe was part leopard – because of those spots.

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As with other animals on the African plain in general, Moss writes that “It is rare for a giraffe to die of old age; when it becomes very old and weak, it is usually taken by a predator.” Back in the 90’s, when I was very new at this, I remember a visit to Ngorongoro Crater, when a wildlife guide named Godfrey showed us a zebra with a broken leg on the edge of a herd, and said it wouldn’t make it until morning. This horrified me, and I lay in the dark and thought about it that night.

The system in the African wild is efficient, and it is surely ruthless, too. If we humans (some of us) have the good fortune to die in bed, pain-mitigated, that surely is not true on the African plains.

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Got a minute to buy me a cup of coffee?