Giraffes The Gorgeous Blondes of the African Savanna


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My first giraffe sight in the Mara

Watching a giraffe is like walking in New York or Chicago
while looking in awe at those magnificent skyscrapers,
but like skyscrapers against a bright sky,
giraffes can be very tricky to photograph.
They are too tall!!
-P.C

Giraffes are the tallest living animals on our planet, and their amazing height, combined with their peculiar color patterning and unusual body proportions make them quite a sight! They are so different from every other mammal in the same order, the Artiodactyla, that you have to wonder how they came to be.

The truth is that this species long neck and legs are one of the most dramatic examples of adaptation by natural selection.

Giraffe Neck close-up in the masai mara, african savanna

Close-up of the incredible neck

According to Jonathan Kingdom’s, East African Mammals Vol IIIb, “it is very likely that the living giraffe represents the culmination of a distinct specialization that would have begun at lower zones. This specialization was the exploitation of green foliage at levels above those reached by bovids.”

From my previous post, we know that bovids from which antelopes are a big part of, originated in Africa. In fact this family began its evolution in around 19 million years ago and rapidly diversified into many different species occupying a huge variety of ecological niches. It is also known that the giraffe’s primary emergence from an early cervid stock was probably in Eurasia some 8 million years ago, so when somehow these early giraffids made their way to Africa around 7 Mya they found a great diversity of competing bovids, this fact may have forced giraffes to look for other sources of food, hence a high specialization for browsing leafs from very tall trees.

Giraffe approaching an Acacia

Female giraffe approaching an acacia tree

Today, giraffes flourish in those areas where there is abundant year-long food at levels between 2 and 5.5 meters (6.5 – 18 feet). Foliage above that level is out of reach for the giraffe’s main competitors, the antelopes. They use their 45 centimeters (17.7 inches) prehensile (capable of grasping), black tongue to rip the thorny leaves from Acacia and Combretum trees and may eat as many as 100 other plant species.  They can eat up to 134 kg (295 pounds) of leaves a day, and ruminate while walking.

Giraffe eating

Giraffe using its impressive prehensile tongue to browse leafs from the acacia

The long necks of giraffids are not only of ecological significance. Both male giraffes and its closest relative the okapi have much more muscular necks than the females. In their fighting contests, male giraffes throw their bluntly horned crowns into the opponent’s body and it is the neck, rather than other parts of the body, that provides the motive force. Finally there is also strong research suggesting that females prefer their males taller and stronger….what’s new there right?

Baby Giraffes

Did you know that baby giraffes are about six feet tall at birth?

Like elephants but in much smaller sizes, giraffes also live in herds composed mainly by mature females and their calfs. Fully mature bulls, instead, tend to lead a nomadic existence, wandering on their own from one herd to another inspecting females for signs of fertility. When more than one bull desire the same female the contests between them are always ritualized tests of strength and weight that include violent and unrestrained blows from immensely heavy heads and powerfully muscled necks.

Giraffe in the masai mara, kenya

What do you want with my babies?

Another unique characteristic of giraffes are the beautiful and unique lattice patterns that seem to have evolved from the spotty patterns that are widespread among herbivores that rely on camouflage (crypsis) in wooded habitats. This pattern which, like zebras, is unique to each individual plays a very important role in protecting vulnerable babies from predators.

This beautiful animal’s enormous size has the secondary asset of deterring all but the largest, the most persistent, or the most hungry of predators from attacking adults. Indeed you will often see them accompanied by zebra, wildebeest and other herbivores who benefit from the giraffe’s strong and telescopic eyesight, a good sense of smell and a previously unknown (by humans) early warning system.

Some Fun Facts About Giraffes

Giraffe Surrounded by Impala and wildebeest in the Masai Mara, Kenya

Giraffe surrounded by impala and wildebeest: A natural observation post for predators

Did you know that it is difficult to catch a giraffe while it’s sleeping only because they get so little of it! Giraffes just sleep for a few minutes at a time, and a maximum of 30 minutes total in a single day.

The giraffe’s tongue is so long that she can actually clean her ears with it!

The average giraffe’s blood pressure is two or three times that of a healthy man! This is because they need a whole lot of pressure to make sure that their brains receive enough blood and oxygen.

Gorgeous Male Giraffe Specimen, Masai Mara

If you think that what you saw so far is tall, then look at this guy! A gorgeous male walking towards us. The only one I saw during that trip. Can you see the oxpeckers perched on his body?

Finally, giraffes can often be seen with small, winged passengers perched on their backs. These birds are called “oxpeckers,” or more commonly known as “tick-birds,” because they eat the ticks off animals, including grateful giraffes. The birds get fed, and the giraffes rid themselves of parasites, it is just nature working in harmony.

To see more giraffe pictures visit Gorgeous Blondes…

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