|Masai giraffe (G. c. tippelskirchi) in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania|
|Distribution of the giraffe|
The giraffe is a large African
The giraffe's chief distinguishing characteristics are its extremely long neck and legs, its horn-like
The giraffe has intrigued various ancient and modern cultures for its peculiar appearance, and has often been featured in paintings, books, and cartoons. It is classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as vulnerable to extinction and has been extirpated from many parts of its former range. Giraffes are still found in numerous national parks and game reserves, but estimates as of 2016 indicate there are approximately 97,500 members of Giraffa in the wild. More than 1,600 were kept in zoos in 2010.
The name "giraffe" has its earliest known origins in the
"Camelopard" // is an archaic English name for the giraffe; it derives from the Ancient Greek καμηλοπάρδαλις (kamēlopárdalis), from κάμηλος (kámēlos), "camel", and πάρδαλις (párdalis), "leopard", referring to its camel-like shape and leopard-like colouration.
The giraffe is one of only two living genera of the family Giraffidae in the order
The family Giraffidae was once much more extensive, with over 10 fossil
Giraffids like Palaeotragus, Shansitherium and Samotherium appeared 14 mya and lived throughout Africa and Eurasia. These animals had broader skulls with reduced frontal cavities. Paleotragus resembled the okapi and may have been its ancestor. Others find that the okapi lineage diverged earlier, before Giraffokeryx. Samotherium was a particularly important transitional fossil in the giraffe lineage, as the length and structure of its cervical vertebrae were between those of a modern giraffe and an okapi, and its neck posture was likely similar to the former's. Bohlinia, which first appeared in southeastern Europe and lived 9–7 mya, was likely a direct ancestor of the giraffe. Bohlinia closely resembled modern giraffes, having a long neck and legs and similar ossicones and dentition.
Bohlinia colonised China and northern India and produced the Giraffa, which, around 7 mya, reached Africa.
The changes from extensive forests to more open habitats, which began 8 mya, are believed to be the main driver for the evolution of giraffes.
Species and subspecies
Carl Linnaeus originally classified living giraffes as one species in 1758. He gave it the binomial name Cervus camelopardalis. Mathurin Jacques Brisson coined the generic name Giraffa in 1762. During the 1900s, various taxonomies with two or three species were proposed. A 2007 study on the genetics of giraffes using mitochondrial DNA suggested at least six lineages could be recognised as species. A 2011 study using detailed analyses of the morphology of giraffes, and application of the phylogenetic species concept, described eight species of living giraffes. A 2016 study also concluded that living giraffes consist of multiple species. The researchers suggested the existence of four species, which have not exchanged genetic information between each other for 1 to 2 million years.
A 2020 study showed that depending on the method chosen, different taxonomic hypotheses recognizing from two to six species can be considered for the genus Giraffa. That study also found that multi-species coalescent methods can lead to taxonomic over-splitting, as those methods delimit geographic structures rather than species. The three-species hypothesis, which recognises G. camelopardalis, G. giraffa, and G. tippelskirchi, is highly supported by phylogenetic analyses and also corroborated by most population genetic and multi-species coalescent analyses. A 2021 whole genome sequencing study suggests the existence of four distinct species and seven subspecies.
The cladogram below shows the phylogenetic relationship between the four proposed species and seven subspecies based on the genome analysis. Note the eight lineages correspond to eight of the traditional subspecies in the one species hypothesis. The Rothschild giraffe is subsumed into G. camelopardalis camelopardalis.
|Description||Image||Eight species taxonomy||Four species taxonomy||Three species taxonomy|
|Northern giraffe |
Three or four subspecies:
|The Nubian giraffe (G. c. camelopardalis), is found in eastern South Sudan and southwestern Ethiopia, in addition to Kenya and Uganda. It has sharply defined chestnut-coloured spots surrounded by mostly white lines, while undersides lack spotting. The median lump is particularly developed in the male.: 51 Around 2,150 are thought to remain in the wild, with another 1,500 individuals belonging to the Rothschild's ecotype. With the addition of Rothschild's giraffe to the Nubian subspecies, the Nubian giraffe is very common in captivity, although the original phenotype is rare — a group is kept at Al Ain Zoo in the United Arab Emirates. In 2003, this group numbered 14.||Nubian giraffe |
|Rothschild's giraffe (G. c. rothschildi) may be an ecotype of G. camelopardalis. Its range includes parts of Uganda and Kenya. Its presence in South Sudan is uncertain. This giraffe has large dark patches that usually have complete margins, but may also have sharp edges. The dark spots may also have paler radiating lines or streaks within them. Spotting rarely reaches below the hocks and almost never to the hooves. This ecotype may also develop five "horns".: 53 Around 1,500 individuals believed to remain in the wild, and more than 450 are living in zoos. According to genetic analysis circa September 2016, it is conspecific with the Nubian giraffe (G. c. camelopardalis).|
pelage (fur) than other subspecies,: 322 with red lobe-shaped blotches that reach below the hocks. The ossicones are more erect than in other subspecies and males have well-developed median lumps.: 52–53 It is the most endangered subspecies within Giraffa, with 400 individuals remaining in the wild. Giraffes in Cameroon were formerly believed to belong to this species, but are actually G. c. antiquorum. This error resulted in some confusion over its status in zoos, but in 2007, it was established that all "G. c. peralta" kept in European zoos are actually G. c. antiquorum. The same 2007 study found that the West African giraffe was more closely related to Rothschild's giraffe than the Kordofan, and its ancestor may have migrated from eastern to northern Africa and then west as the Sahara Desert spread. At its largest, Lake Chad may have acted as a boundary between the West African and Kordofan giraffes during the Holocene (before 5000 BC).
|West African giraffe |
International Species Information System records, more than 450 are living in zoos.
Also known as Somali giraffe
Namib Desert and Etosha National Park populations form a separate subspecies. This subspecies has large brown blotches with notched edges or angular extensions. The spotting pattern extends throughout the legs but not the upper part of the face. The neck and rump patches tend to be fairly small. The subspecies also has a white ear patch.: 51 About 13,000 animals are estimated to remain in the wild, and about 20 are living in zoos.
Also known as Namibian giraffe
|Southern giraffe (G. giraffa)
|The South African giraffe (G. c. giraffa) is found in northern South Africa, southern Botswana, northern Botswana and southwestern Mozambique. It has dark, somewhat rounded patches "with some fine projections" on a tawny background colour. The spots extend down the legs, growing smaller as they do. The median lump of males is poorly developed.: 52 A maximum of 31,500 are estimated to remain in the wild, and around 45 are living in zoos.||South African giraffe |
Also known as Cape giraffe
|The Masai giraffe (G. c. tippelskirchi) can be found in central and southern Kenya and in Tanzania. Its coat patterns are highly diverse, with spots ranging from mostly rounded and smooth edged to oval shaped and incised or loped edged. A median lump is usually present in males.: 54  A total of 32,550 are thought to remain in the wild, and about 100 are living in zoos.||Masai giraffe
Also known as
|Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi)
Thornicroft's giraffe (G. c. thornicrofti) is restricted to the Luangwa Valley in eastern Zambia. The patches are notched and somewhat star-shaped, and may or may not extend across the legs. The median lump of males is underdeveloped.: 54 No more than 550 remain in the wild, with none in zoos. It was named after Harry Scott Thornicroft.
Also known as Luangwa giraffe or Rhodesian giraffe
The first extinct species to be described was Giraffa sivalensis Falconer and Cautley 1843, a reevaluation of a vertebra that was initially described as a fossil of the living giraffe. While taxonomic opinion may be lacking on some names, the extinct species that have been published include:
- Giraffa gracilis
- Giraffa jumae
- Giraffa pomeli
- Giraffa priscilla
- Giraffa punjabiensis
- Giraffa pygmaea
- Giraffa sivalensis
- Giraffa stillei
Fully grown giraffes stand 4.3–5.7 m (14–19 ft) tall, with males taller than females. The average weight is 1,192 kg (2,628 lb) for an adult male and 828 kg (1,825 lb) for an adult female. Despite its long neck and legs, its body is relatively short.: 66 The skin is mostly gray, or tan, and can reach a thickness of 20 mm (0.79 in).: 87 The 80–100 cm (31–39 in) long tail ends in a long, dark tuft of hair and is used as a defense against insects.: 94
The coat has dark blotches or patches, which can be orange, chestnut, brown, or nearly black, surrounded by light hair, usually white or cream coloured. Male giraffes become darker as they grow old. The coat pattern has been claimed to serve as camouflage in the light and shade patterns of savannah woodlands. When standing among trees and bushes, they are hard to see at even a few metres distance. However, adult giraffes move about to gain the best view of an approaching predator, relying on their size and ability to defend themselves rather than on camouflage, which may be more important for calves. Each giraffe has a unique coat pattern. Calves inherit some coat pattern traits from their mothers, and variation in some spot traits is correlated with calf survival. The skin under the blotches may regulate the animal's body temperature, being sites for complex blood vessel systems and large sweat glands.
The fur may give the animal chemical defense, as its parasite repellents give it a characteristic scent. At least 11 main
Both sexes have prominent horn-like structures called
With eyes located on the sides of the head, the giraffe has a broad
The giraffe has an extremely elongated neck, which can be up to 2.4 m (7 ft 10 in) in length. Along the neck is a mane made of short, erect hairs. The neck typically rests at an angle of 50–60 degrees, though juveniles are closer to 70 degrees.: 72–73 The long neck results from a disproportionate lengthening of the cervical vertebrae, not from the addition of more vertebrae. Each cervical vertebra is over 28 cm (11 in) long.: 71 They comprise 52–54 per cent of the length of the giraffe's vertebral column, compared with the 27–33 percent typical of similar large ungulates, including the giraffe's closest living relative, the okapi. This elongation largely takes place after birth, perhaps because giraffe mothers would have a difficult time giving birth to young with the same neck proportions as adults. The giraffe's head and neck are held up by large muscles and a nuchal ligament, which are anchored by long thoracic vertebrae spines, giving them a hump.
The giraffe's neck vertebrae have
There are several hypotheses regarding the evolutionary origin and maintenance of elongation in giraffe necks.
Another theory, the sexual selection hypothesis, proposes the long necks evolved as a secondary sexual characteristic, giving males an advantage in "necking" contests (see below) to establish dominance and obtain access to sexually receptive females. In support of this theory, necks are longer and heavier for males than females of the same age, and males do not employ other forms of combat. However, one objection is it fails to explain why female giraffes also have long necks. It has also been proposed that the neck serves to give the animal greater vigilance.
Legs, locomotion and posture
A giraffe's front and back legs are about the same length. The radius and ulna of the front legs are articulated by the carpus, which, while structurally equivalent to the human wrist, functions as a knee. It appears that a suspensory ligament allows the lanky legs to support the animal's great weight. The hooves of large male giraffes reach 31 cm × 23 cm (12.2 in × 9.1 in) in diameter.: 98 The fetlock of the leg is low to the ground, allowing the hoof to better support the animal's weight. Giraffes lack dewclaws and interdigital glands. While the pelvis is relatively short, the ilium has stretched out crests.
A giraffe has only two gaits: walking and galloping. Walking is done by moving the legs on one side of the body, then doing the same on the other side. When galloping, the hind legs move around the front legs before the latter move forward, and the tail will curl up. The movements of the head and neck provide balance and control momentum while galloping.: 327–29 The giraffe can reach a sprint speed of up to 60 km/h (37 mph), and can sustain 50 km/h (31 mph) for several kilometres. Giraffes would probably not be competent swimmers as their long legs would be highly cumbersome in the water, although they might be able to float. When swimming, the thorax would be weighed down by the front legs, making it difficult for the animal to move its neck and legs in harmony or keep its head above the water's surface.
A giraffe rests by lying with its body on top of its folded legs.
In mammals, the left recurrent laryngeal nerve is longer than the right; in the giraffe, it is over 30 cm (12 in) longer. These nerves are longer in the giraffe than in any other living animal; the left nerve is over 2 m (6 ft 7 in) long. Each nerve cell in this path begins in the brainstem and passes down the neck along the vagus nerve, then branches off into the recurrent laryngeal nerve which passes back up the neck to the larynx. Thus, these nerve cells have a length of nearly 5 m (16 ft) in the largest giraffes. Despite its long neck and large skull, the brain of the giraffe is typical for an ungulate. Evaporative heat loss in the nasal passages keep the giraffe's brain cool. The shape of the skeleton gives the giraffe a small lung volume relative to its mass. Its long neck gives it a large amount of dead space, in spite of its narrow windpipe. The giraffe also has a high tidal volume so the balance of dead space and tidal volume is much the same as other mammals. The animal can still provide enough oxygen for its tissues, and it can increase its respiratory rate and oxygen diffusion when running.
Giraffes have oesophageal muscles that are strong enough to allow regurgitation of food from the stomach up the neck and into the mouth for rumination.: 78 They have four chambered stomachs, which are adapted to their specialized diet. The intestines of an adult giraffe measure more than 70 m (230 ft) in length and have a relatively small ratio of small to large intestine. The giraffe has a small, compact liver.: 76 In fetuses there may be a small gallbladder that vanishes before birth.
Behaviour and ecology
Habitat and feeding
Giraffes usually inhabit savannahs and open
During the wet season, food is abundant and giraffes are more spread out, while during the dry season, they gather around the remaining evergreen trees and bushes. Mothers tend to feed in open areas, presumably to make it easier to detect predators, although this may reduce their feeding efficiency. As a ruminant, the giraffe first chews its food, then swallows it for processing and then visibly passes the half-digested cud up the neck and back into the mouth to chew again.: 78–79 The giraffe requires less food than many other herbivores because the foliage it eats has more concentrated nutrients and it has a more efficient digestive system. The animal's faeces come in the form of small pellets. When it has access to water, a giraffe will go no more than three days without drinking.
Giraffes have a great effect on the trees that they feed on, delaying the growth of young trees for some years and giving "waistlines" to too tall trees. Feeding is at its highest during the first and last hours of daytime. Between these hours, giraffes mostly stand and ruminate. Rumination is the dominant activity during the night, when it is mostly done lying down.
Giraffes are usually found in groups that vary in size and composition according to ecological, anthropogenic, temporal, and social factors. Traditionally, the composition of these groups had been described as open and ever-changing. For research purposes, a "group" has been defined as "a collection of individuals that are less than a kilometre apart and moving in the same general direction". More recent studies have found that giraffes have long lasting social groups or cliques based on kinship, sex or other factors, and these groups regularly associate with other groups in larger communities or sub-communities within a fission–fusion society. Proximity to humans can disrupt social arrangements. Masai giraffes in Tanzania sort themselves into different subpopulations of 60–90 adult females with overlapping ranges, each of which differ in reproductive rates and calf mortality. Dispersal is male biased, and can include spatial and/or social dispersal. Adult female subpopulations are connected by males into supercommunities of around 300 animals.
The number of giraffes in a group can range from one up to 66 individuals.
Early biologists suggested giraffes were mute and unable to create enough air flow to vibrate their
Reproduction and parental care
Reproduction in giraffes is broadly
Male giraffes assess female fertility by tasting the female's urine to detect oestrus, in a multi-step process known as the flehmen response. Once an oestrous female is detected, the male will attempt to court her. When courting, dominant males will keep subordinate ones at bay. A courting male may lick a female's tail, lay his head and neck on her body or nudge her with his ossicones. During copulation, the male stands on his hind legs with his head held up and his front legs resting on the female's sides.
Mothers with calves will gather in nursery herds, moving or browsing together. Mothers in such a group may sometimes leave their calves with one female while they forage and drink elsewhere. This is known as a "calving pool". Calves are at risk of predation, and a mother giraffe will stand over them and kick at an approaching predator. Females watching calving pools will only alert their own young if they detect a disturbance, although the others will take notice and follow. Allo-sucking, where a calf will suckle a female other than its mother, has been recorded in both wild and captive giraffes. Calves first ruminate at four to six months and stop nursing at six to eight months. Young may not reach independence until they are 14 months old.: 49 Females become sexually mature when they are four years old, while males become mature at four or five years. Spermatogenesis in male giraffes begins at three to four years of age. Males must wait until they are at least seven years old to gain the opportunity to mate.
Male giraffes use their necks as weapons in combat, a behaviour known as "necking". Necking is used to establish dominance and males that win necking bouts have greater reproductive success. This behaviour occurs at low or high intensity. In low-intensity necking, the combatants rub and lean on each other. The male that can keep itself more upright wins the bout. In high-intensity necking, the combatants will spread their front legs and swing their necks at each other, attempting to land blows with their ossicones. The contestants will try to dodge each other's blows and then prepare to counter. The power of a blow depends on the weight of the skull and the arc of the swing. A necking duel can last more than half an hour, depending on how well matched the combatants are.: 331 Although most fights do not lead to serious injury, there have been records of broken jaws, broken necks, and even deaths.
After a duel, it is common for two male giraffes to caress and court each other. Such interactions between males have been found to be more frequent than heterosexual coupling. In one study, up to 94 percent of observed mounting incidents took place between males. The proportion of same-sex activities varied from 30 to 75 percent. Only one percent of same-sex mounting incidents occurred between females.
Mortality and health
Giraffes have high adult survival probability,
The local, seasonal presence of large herds of migratory wildebeests and zebras reduces predation pressure on giraffe calves and increases their survival probability. In turn, it has been suggested that other ungulates may benefit from associating with giraffes, as their height allows them to spot predators from further away. Zebras were found to assess predation risk by watching giraffes and spend less time looking around when giraffes are present.
Some parasites feed on giraffes. They are often hosts for
With its lanky build and spotted coat, the giraffe has been a source of fascination throughout human history, and its image is widespread in culture. It has represented flexibility, far-sightedness, femininity, fragility, passivity, grace, beauty and the continent of Africa itself.: 7, 116
Giraffes were depicted in art throughout the African continent, including that of the
Giraffes have a presence in modern
The giraffe has also been used for some scientific experiments and discoveries. Scientists have used the properties of giraffe skin as a model for
The Egyptians were among the earliest people to keep giraffes in captivity and shipped them around the Mediterranean.
Individual captive giraffes were given celebrity status throughout history. In 1414, a giraffe from
Giraffes have become popular attractions in modern zoos, though keeping them healthy is difficult as they require vast areas and need to eat large amounts of browse. Captive giraffes in North America and Europe appear to have a higher mortality rate than in the wild; the most common causes being poor husbandry, nutrition and management.: 153 Giraffes in zoos display stereotypical behaviours, particularly the licking of inanimate objects and pacing.: 164 Zookeepers may offer various activities to stimulate giraffes, including training them to take food from visitors.: 167, 176 Stables for giraffes are built particularly high to accommodate their height.: 183
Giraffes were probably common targets for hunters throughout Africa.
In 2016, giraffes were assessed as
The primary causes for giraffe population declines are habitat loss and direct killing for bushmeat markets. Giraffes have been extirpated from much of their historic range, including Eritrea, Guinea, Mauritania and Senegal. They may also have disappeared from Angola, Mali, and Nigeria, but have been introduced to Rwanda and Eswatini. As of 2010[update], there were more than 1,600 in captivity at Species360-registered zoos. Habitat destruction has hurt the giraffe. In the Sahel, the need for firewood and grazing room for livestock has led to deforestation. Normally, giraffes can coexist with livestock, since they avoid direct competition by feeding above them. In 2017, severe droughts in northern Kenya led to increased tensions over land and the killing of wildlife by herders, with giraffe populations being particularly hit.
Protected areas like national parks provide important habitat and anti-poaching protection to giraffe populations.
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