The Giraffe – Giraffa camelopardalis – is often one of the animals that people visiting Lion Sands are most excited about seeing. Their strange shape and elegant, serene demeanour makes them fascinating to watch and a wonder of nature to behold.
Giraffes are the tallest terrestrial mammal, and largest ruminant currently alive on earth.
The number of species of giraffe is often debated, but one theory suggests there is only one species that is divided into a number of different subspecies, based mainly on colour and pattern caused by differing geographical locations. There are currently nine subspecies, although as normal in science, this can always be debated.
Giraffes have seven vertebrae in their necks, the same as most mammals (other than sloths and manatees, but that is a story for another day). The point at which the last vertebra meets the skull, called the atlas/axis joint, is modified to allow the head to lift to a 180 degree angle, something which is very uncommon in other mammals. This adaptation allows giraffes to browse at an even higher level.
As if it was necessary to add even more reach, giraffes already stand up to 5.5 meters tall, and have an exceptionally long tongue that can measure around 45 centimetres. This incredible tongue is dark in colour, and coated with a thick film of sticky saliva. Some say this is to prevent the tongue from getting sun burnt while feeding in intense summer temperatures. When fully extended, giraffes twist their tongues around the tastiest, hard to reach leaves, then retract it back into their mouths, often to chew over at their leisure.
Giraffes also have large, powerful hearts that weight up to 12kg. The walls of the left ventricle are thickened and can beat up to three times per second, in order to pump blood around the large body, and up the neck and to the head and brain, against the force of gravity. Various mechanisms have evolved to prevent this high pressure from having a negative effect on the animal when its head is lowered. There is a special system of capillaries bunched together as an organ called the rete mirabile at the base of the brain that reduces the pressure of blood by slowing it down. There are also two sets of valves, one at the carotid artery, and another between the brain and the heart. These slow down the blood flow, preventing the animal from passing out when it lowers and lifts its head while drinking. Giraffes are often very cautious to drink, as it places them in a vulnerable position, with their legs splayed wide and head lowered, preventing it from easily pinpointing threats or predators. There has been many times we have sat patiently waiting for a giraffe to finally relax enough to take that much-needed drink, only for it to move away still thirsty.
The bony horns on top of their heads, referred to as ossicles or ossicones, are slightly flexible and cartilaginous at birth, but through a process of ossification, they soon fuse solid to the skull. These are used in intense battles between males, and if the right blow is inflicted, it can even kill an opponent.
These iconic African animals are relatively common around our concession at Lion Sands, and we are even lucky enough to currently be seeing some very young calves in the area. With their unusual gait and outlandish form, these giants are often (and will remain) a firm favourite on safari.
Words and images by Kelly Oldaker