Giraffes are the tallest mammals in the world. Their legs alone are taller than most humans, and measure around 6 feet. Their long legs mean that they can run as fast as 35 miles an hour over short distances, and they can jog at 10 miles an hour over longer distances. Their height also allows them to feed from areas where other animals cannot reach. It also helps them to keep an eye out for predators, as they are hunted by big cats and humans.
Even a giraffe’s tongue is long – 21 inches. Their long tongues are used to constantly feed, as they need to eat hundreds of pounds of leaves each week to survive.
Being tall has its disadvantages though. Bending down to drink can be an awkward maneuverer, and this makes them vulnerable to attack. Giraffes only need to risk this every few days, as they get most of their water from the plants that they eat.
A mother giraffe will be pregnant with her calf for 15 months, before giving birth to a six-foot calf. Baby giraffes have a bit of an abrupt awakening, as their mothers give birth standing up. This means that the babies fall more than 5 feet to the ground when they are born. As they are a prey animal, they quickly learn to stand, and do so within half an hour, and then within 10 hours after being born, they are able to run with their mothers.
Friendships in giraffe herds
Giraffes spend their times in herds, typically comprised of females and their offspring, and some males. Mature males leave their parental group and will usually live alone, apart from when it is time to mate. Until recently, it was thought that giraffe herds were a random association of individuals, and that there were no strong relationships keeping the herd together. Scientists have since found this not to be the case.
Researchers in the USA have analysed the social groupings of captive giraffes, and found that giraffes actually deliberately spend time with preferred individuals, and that their social groupings are not random after all1. Furthermore, it appears that giraffes develop strong relationships with others, regardless of whether they are related or not. In addition, mothers and daughters appear to have long-lasting strong bonds, and deliberately choose to spend time together years after weaning.
Researchers in Australia have found similar findings in wild giraffes in Namibia. They studied the giraffe’s social preferences and found that although related females were more likely to spend time together, many pairs of female giraffes were unrelated2. This shows that the giraffes were choosing to spend time with preferred individuals, regardless of whether or not they were related. This indicates the presence of friendship in giraffes, something that was once thought to be a foreign concept for these animals.
Giraffe herds are known to be relatively unstable, which means that individuals will come and go at times. Despite this, giraffe herds are comprised of complex social relationships and groupings which can withstand this instability. Another study into giraffe social relationships performed by researchers from the USA found that although giraffe herds are fluid, they are based upon strong relationships that stand the test of time3. The researchers found that individual giraffes were often members of cliques, and that they would prefer to spend their time with others in that clique. At times, they may leave the group, or socialise with other individuals, but they would always come back to their cliques, and would spend most of their time with their clique members. Furthermore, being linked to another giraffe in this way, means that they are also closer to that giraffes preferred partners. In other words, the friend of my friend, is also my friend.
These observations of social cliques in giraffe herds tend to be gender specific, as females would prefer to socialise with other females, and males with other males3. These male social cliques can be referred to as bachelor herds, and this is something that is seen in other species too. These groups tend to be comprised of younger males, who are not yet dominant enough to win mating rights. Older males who are sexually active, tend to spend time alone.
The more we learn about different species of animals, the more we discover that they are not that different from us after all. Giraffes are highly social animals, but we are only just beginning to understand the complexities of their social systems and family networks.
Giraffes truly are amazing animals.
Estimates by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and IUCN indicate that giraffe numbers have plummeted across Africa by ~40% to <100,000 individuals in the past three decades. This is due to factors including habitat loss, habitat degradation and habitat fragmentation coupled with human population growth and illegal hunting (poaching).
Humans and giraffes can come into conflict over land, as giraffes may graze and damage crops, and some diseases may spread between livestock and giraffes. As humans encroach further into the giraffes’ habitats, giraffes are also more frequently harmed in vehicle collisions. Habitat loss is a considerable problem, and as a result, giraffe populations become more fragmented, and individuals are unable to move between groups to maintain diverse populations.
Giraffes as a species are listed as ‘Vulnerable ‘on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It is believed that there are four different species of giraffe. With just over 5,000 individuals, the Northern giraffe is the least populous of these. Nubian (formerly Rothschild’s) giraffe, a subspecies of Northern giraffe, are estimated at only 2,645 individuals in the wild – most of these in Uganda.