Fun Facts About Giraffe For Kids
How many types of giraffes are there? What are their eating and sleeping habits? How do they fight? Not many of us know such giraffe facts. So, read on for more such interesting facts about giraffes.
By Amrita Gracias • 24 min read
Have you ever wanted to know more about giraffes – the tall, gentle animals with patches all over and an unusually long neck? Popular and well-liked, we are familiar with how these graceful, towering African creatures look. But, not many of us know about details such as their behaviour, unique characteristics and various types of giraffe species. So, let’s learn some interesting giraffe facts and discover what it’s like to be the tallest land animal on the planet!
The origin of the giraffe
- Giraffes, as we know them today, have been around on Earth for a little over a million years. But the species from which they evolved first appeared on our planet about 15 million years ago!
- Native to Africa, giraffes roamed freely across 15 countries of the continent.
- The word ‘giraffe’ is derived from the Arabic word ‘zarafa’ meaning ‘fast walker’.
- In the English language, the word is said to have been derived from the French word ‘girafe’ (meaning giraffe). In medieval English, the animal was commonly referred to as camelopard.
Giraffe species and types
- Giraffes belong to the family Giraffidae and the genus Giraffa.
- These mammals are long-necked, long-legged and hoofed, and have irregular, brown square-shaped patterns on their lighter skin.
- They belong to the order Artiodactyla, which includes other animals like deer, goats and camels.
- Giraffes are also ruminants – that is they are mammals that are even-toed and chew the cud (they chew the partly digested food a second time in order to soften it; their digestive system involves four chambers in the stomach).
- Male giraffes are called bulls, while females are referred to as cows. Baby giraffes are called calves.
Initially, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), all giraffes were said to belong to a single species that were further divided into nine subspecies. However, following detailed research based on DNA sampling and analysis, an updated taxonomy of the giraffe species was created with four distinct species and five subspecies.
Classification of the species
1. Northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis)
- Kordofan giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis antiquorum)
- Nubian giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis)
- West African giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis peralta)
- Rothschild’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi)
2. Reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata)
3. Southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa)
- Angolan giraffe (Giraffa giraffa angolensis)
- South African giraffe (Giraffa giraffa giraffa)
4. Masai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi): This subspecies of giraffe is found only in the Luangwa Valley of Zambia. So, it is considered an ecotype (a genetically distinct species of animals or plants found only in a particular environment/habitat) of the Northern giraffe. (a genetically distinct species of animals or plants found only in a particular environment/habitat)
5. Rhodesian giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis thornicrofti)
The different species and subspecies of giraffes are based on where they are found (as they live in geographically distinct areas), the type of patterns on their skin, the colouring of these patterns and their skin colour as well. There might be interbreeding of subspecies among those in captivity in zoos, but this has not been found to occur among giraffes in the wild.
Physical features of giraffes
1. Kordofan giraffe
- These giraffes are the shortest, with their height ranging from 3.8 to 4.7m.
- They have no spots or markings on their lower legs.
- The name of this species comes from Kordofan, a former province of Sudan.
- Kordofan giraffes are found mainly in southern Chad, Central African Republic, northern Cameroon, and the northern Democratic Republic of Congo.
2. Nubian giraffe
- The average weight of this species is 1270kg.
- These giraffes have chestnut-coloured spots surrounded by white lines.
- There are no spots on the underside of the animals.
- The median lump, a horn-like projection emerging from the front of the skull, is the most developed in the males of this species.
- Nubian giraffes are one of the most endangered species of giraffes.
- They are found mainly in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan. However, they are no longer seen in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Eriteria.
3. West African giraffe
- They are commonly referred to as Nigerian giraffes.
- Their distinguishing feature is the light, tan-coloured spots on light cream-coloured skin. The forehead has very few spots.
- The males have thicker horns than the females and are much taller.
- West African giraffes can weigh up to 1300kg and grow up to 6m tall.
- The ossicones of the males are bald, thick and are about 5 inches long while those of the females are thinner, smaller and have hair on them.
- These giraffes are generally nomadic and roam to find food.
- There is a vast decrease in their population with only around 600 of them left.
- They currently exist only in parts of the Niger in the wild, with none in captivity.
4. Rothschild’s giraffe
- Also known as Ugandan or Baringo giraffes, they are the tallest of all giraffe species. They can grow up to 19 feet tall and weigh up to 2,500 pounds.
- The colour of Rothschild’s giraffe is different from those of other species. The patches are a combination of dark brown and dark orange and the skin creamy / yellowish in colour.
- There are no spots below the kneecaps, and from here on, the skin is whitish.
- These giraffes have a clearly visible vertical mane of dark brown hair.
- They are born with two ossicones.
- Their natural habitat is mainly Kenya and Uganda.
5. Reticulated giraffe
- These are also known as the Somali giraffes.
- They have large spots with white or cream lines in between.
- The spots are brown in colour and cover most of the body, including the face and tail. However, the spots fade below the knees and merge with the skin colour.
- These giraffes are slightly smaller in height and grow to about 13 to 16 feet tall.
- This species is most commonly seen in zoos around the world.
- In the wild, they are found in the dry plains and Savannahs of Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia.
6. Angolan giraffe
- These are also known as Namibian giraffes. Despite the name, they are now extinct in Angola.
- They grow to about 4.7–5.7m tall.
- They have large brown spots that are angular in shape. The spots cover the entire body, including the lower legs but not the upper part of the face.
- A distinctive feature of this species is a white ear patch.
- There are approximately 13,000 of them left in the wild.
- Currently, they are found in northern Namibia, south-west Zambia, Botswana and western Zimbabwe.
7. South African giraffe
- These are also called Cape giraffes.
- They have dark reddish-brown patches on a light tan skin.
- The patches are irregular with rounded edges.
- The spots appear all over the body. However, near the feet, the size of the spots is smaller.
- The median lump (big horn-like growth in the middle of the head) in the males is less developed.
- These giraffes have some features that overlap with the Angolan species.
- They are found in northern South Africa, southwestern Namibia, southern Botswana and Zimbabwe.
8. Masai giraffe
- These are also known as Kilimanjaro giraffes.
- They are the largest of the giraffe species.
- Adult males can grow up to 19.5 feet tall and females can reach up to 18 feet.
- Males can weigh up to 4,000 pounds and females 2,600 pounds.
- Their patches are two shades of brown, have jagged edges and resemble oak leaves. They cover the entire body from face to feet.
- Males have darker patches compared to females.
- The background skin is yellowish.
- They are found in the central and southern Savannahs of Kenya as well as Tanzania.
9. Rhodesian giraffe
- These are commonly known as Luangwa or Thornicroft’s giraffes.
- They have large dark patches that are star-shaped or look like ragged leaves. The background skin has a cream colour.
- The patches extend right down to the lower legs of the animal.
- There are only about 550 Rhodesian giraffes in the wild and none in captivity.
- This species is geographically isolated and is found only in the Luangwa valley in Zambia.
General physical features of the giraffe
- Teeth: Giraffes have no front upper teeth. In fact, like humans, they also have 32 teeth! But all these teeth are positioned only at the front of the lower jaw and at the back of the upper jaw. In place of the teeth in the upper jaw, they have a lump of tissue known as a hard plate, which helps them grip and pull out leaves. They also use their lips and tongue to pull at leaves, and then grind them with the teeth at the back of the jaw.
- Tongue: They have a really long tongue – about 20 inches or almost two feet long! The tongue is highly flexible, thick and tough, allowing them to feed on leaves from the thorny acacia tree. A giraffe’s tongue is bluish-black. It is believed that this dark colour protects it from the harsh African sun.
- Ossicones: The two horn-like structures on a giraffe’s head are called ossicones. They are made of cartilage and covered with fur. At birth, the ossicones are flat, but within a few days, they become upright and rigid. At times, male giraffes use their ossicones during fights with other males.
- Neck: A giraffe’s long neck is its distinguishing feature. But, despite this, giraffes can’t actually bend over to drink water because their necks are actually too short to reach the ground! Instead they need to spread their front legs or kneel to reach the ground to drink water. Their long necks enable them to eat the leaves from the top of tall trees. Their neck can measure up to 6 feet in length. Males can swing their neck to fight or compete with other males. Although a giraffe’s neck is so long, it only consists of seven vertebrae (the same number as in a human’s neck). However, each vertebrae is elongated. Large and strong muscles on the animals’ hindquarters support the neck as well.
- Hooves: Giraffes are even-toed ungulates, which means they have two weight-bearing hooves on each foot. Their feet are rather large, each measuring about 30cm, which prevents them from sinking in loose sand despite their heavy weight.
- Eyes: Baby giraffes are born with monocular vision, which means each eye is used independently of the other. This enables them to have a wide view, but this causes poor depth perception. However, as they grow into adults, the vision becomes binocular, meaning both eyes are used together in conjunction. Their bulging eyes also help with a wide field of vision. The eyelashes are thick and prevent sand from getting into the eyes.
- Tail: Giraffes have the longest tail among all land animals. A giraffe’s tail can grow up to 8 feet long, with a dark-coloured hairy tuft at the end. The tail consists of 18 coccygeal vertebrae. Like other animals, giraffes swing their tail to swat flies and insects that bite.
Amazing giraffe facts
- Because of their long legs, giraffes can run very fast, reaching speeds of up to 56 km/hr when running short distances. When they run for longer stretches, they can attain speeds of 10km/hr.
- Their legs are immensely strong and giraffes use them to defend themselves against predators. A single kick from a giraffe is strong enough to kill a lion.
- Giraffes hardly sleep. They are known to sleep for only about 20 to 30 minutes a day, a few minutes at a time, which they mostly do while standing.
- The incredible height of giraffes enables them to spot predators (lions, hyenas, wild dogs and leopards) from a considerable distance, giving them enough time to flee.
- A special arrangement of light-sensing cells in their eyes enables them to see a few metres ahead while simultaneously looking down at their feet while walking. They are also one of the few mammals that possess colour vision.
Giraffe: Eating habits
- Giraffes are herbivores and feed mostly on herbs, twigs and leaves. They prefer leaves of the accacia and mimosa trees as these are rich in proteins and calcium, which help sustain their growth.
- They eat about 34kg of foliage every day.
- They fulfil most of their hydration requirements from eating leaves. So, giraffes can go for days without water.
- When giraffes do drink water, they can drink large amounts at a time – up to 10 gallons or 37L.
- Giraffes are ruminants – this means they chew their food, swallow it and then regurgitate it to chew on again.
- Giraffes are native to Africa and live in the open grasslands, woodlands and Savannahs of the continent.
- They are fairly social animals and don’t mark their territories. They live in small groups, called towers, which consist of about 10 to 20 members.
- Towers are not gender-controlled and can consist of only females and their young or only males or even a mixture of both males and females.
- Individual animals are free to join and leave these towers as they please. Sometimes, an adult male may lead a group.
Lifespan of giraffe
- Compared to other ruminants, giraffes have a longer lifespan.
- In the wild, although there is no evidence to prove it, giraffes are believed to live up to 25 years.
- In captivity, however, there are possibilities of them living longer.
- Young calves however often fall prey to predators. They are killed mostly by lions and hyenas.
How do giraffes communicate?
Giraffes hardly make any loud noise; they are relatively silent animals and communicate with each other mostly non-verbally. However, detailed studies of these animals have shown that they interact through infrasonic sounds (low moans and grunts). These sounds are so low-pitched that it is impossible for humans to hear them.
- Loud noises are made by males during the mating season to attract females. These noises resemble bellowing, coughing, hissing and snorting.
- Another form of communication among male giraffes is called ‘necking’, where they wrap or rub their necks against each other. This is usually done to establish their dominance over the others.
- Mother giraffes are known to whistle to their young to call or warn them of predators. It is said that giraffes also convey various emotions with their eyes. They sometimes stare at others in their herd to convey imminent danger.
Mother and baby giraffe
Giraffes mate throughout the year. The gestation period varies between 400 and 460 days, after which the mother giraffe usually gives birth to one baby. However, in some cases, a mother giraffe may also bear twins.
The baby giraffe is taken care of by the mother or other females in the tower. Mothers in a herd are known to take turns to take care of the calves and protect them. Many herds consist of only females and their calves. Once the calves mature, males can leave the herd and survive on their own, joining a herd only for mating.
- Giraffe calves are born after a gestation period of 15 months. At birth, they weigh about 45 – 70kg and measure about 6 feet in height (taller than most humans).
- The calves can stand up within an hour of being born, and walk or run about 10 hours after birth.
- For the first week, the mother keeps her calf in isolation, nuzzling and licking it as they both get familiar with each other’s scent.
- Mothers protect their young by standing over them as they are vulnerable to attacks from predators.
- The calves of the herd stay together – socialising in nursery groups and hiding in the tall grass – while the mothers feed nearby.
- Calves feed on their mothers’ milk until they are 9 to 12 months old but begin to eat leaves by 3 to 4 months of age
- Male calves usually stay with their mothers until they are 15 months old and then leave to join a herd of other males. Female calves remain with their mothers for about 18 months but don’t leave – they continue living with the same herd.
- Females reach maturity when they are 4 – 5 years old while males attain maturity at 7 – 8 years of age.
- According to the website giraffeconservation.org, there are approximately 1,11,000 giraffes living in the wild in Africa as of May 2019. Though the numbers of certain species have risen considerably, this hasn’t been the case with others.
- While giraffes once roamed widely across many countries of Africa, they now exist only in Kenya, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Uganda, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Angola and South Africa.
- Some of the popular national parks and sanctuaries that are home to various subspecies of giraffes include the Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda; Kruger National Park, South Africa; Serengeti Nation Park, Tanzania; Masai Marai National Reserve, Kenya; Etosha National Park and Skeleton Coast Nation Park, Namibia.
- There are several giraffes living in captivity in zoos around the world. However, exact numbers of these remain unknown, although roughly estimated at under 2,000 the world over.
The giraffe population has declined by over 40% in the recent decades. The most common reasons for this decline are:
- Growth of human population, increase in human activities and encroachment leading to loss of forests
- War and civil conflict across several African countries have also contributed to the decline of the giraffe population
- Poaching for bones, tail and other body parts of the animal is another reason
Protecting the giraffe population
In 2016, the IUCN declared some giraffe species as vulnerable (the status just above endangered). The Kordofian (less than 2,000 individuals existing) and Nubian (estimated number is only 650 in the wild) giraffes are now considered critically endangered. The Reticulated and Masai species have been marked as endangered.
- Many giraffe conservation projects have been initiated to save these gentle giants from going extinct.
- The Namibia-based Giraffe Conservation Foundation, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the African Wildlife Foundation are some of the well-known organisations that are striving to provide these animals with a safe habitat.
- These organisations also work towards educating the locals about employing sustainable agricultural practices so as to not threaten the natural environment of the animals.
- They also oversee reforestation projects to promote an increase in the giraffe population.
Giraffes in children’s stories, literature and movies
- These gentle and graceful animals make popular characters in children’s story books. Some popular children’s books that feature the giraffe as the main character include ‘Giraffe and the Pelly and Me’ by Roald Dahl and the ‘Lonely Giraffe’ by Peter Blight.
- The book ‘Giraffe’ by Scottish writer Jonathan Ledgard chronicles the lives of a group of 49 giraffes captured from Africa and brought to Czechoslovakia – the largest herd in captivity – where they are killed by the country’s secret police in 1975. This account is based on a true story and the reason for this inhuman act remains a mystery till date.
- Melman the Giraffe is a popular character (voiced by David Schwimmer of Friends fame) from the animated ‘Madagascar’ movies. He belongs to a gang of animals who must learn to adapt to life in the wild after living in Central Park Zoo. Portrayed as a hypochondriac, Melman is best known for looking for a cure for the natural brown spots on his neck!
- ‘The Woman Who Loves Giraffes’ (2018) is the story of Anne Dagg, who was one of the first individuals to research and document these animals and their behaviour.
- ‘Zarafa’ (2012) is a French-Belgian animated movie about a little boy who escapes slave traders and befriends an orphan giraffe named Zarafa. The two of them, along with others they meet on the way, embark on an incredible journey from Africa to France.
Giraffe as a symbol or in a title
- World Giraffe Day is celebrated on June 21 every year. This day was chosen as it is the longest day of the year and is rather apt to celebrate the tallest animal on the earth.
- Since giraffes have existed for so long, they appear frequently in African and Egyptian murals and drawings. Representations of these animals have also been found in Greek, Roman and Chinese art.
- Giraffes were a status symbol among the imperials and the rich, and were often given as gifts by royal families to each other in the 1800s across Europe, Africa and Asia.
- Giraffe is the national animal of Tanzania. It represents strength and flexibility.
- When a portion of mainland Tanzania was a part of the British territory between 1961 and 1964 (then known as Tanganyika), the national flag bore the Union Jack along with the head of a giraffe in a white disk.
- The 500 shillings currency notes of Tanzania, printed in 1997, feature a giraffe on the front. Since they were replaced in 2003 and became obsolete, these notes have become valuable collectibles.
These magnificent mammals are certainly one of nature’s marvels. But, their declining numbers in the recent years is indeed unfortunate. However, conservation efforts have made a marked difference. While the giraffe population continues to decrease in many parts of Africa, the species in South Africa is said to be flourishing once again. With increased awareness and a lot of endeavour to protect the species, we hope that these towering animals will continue to thrive in their natural environment.
About the author:
Written by Amrita Gracias on 19 December 2019
Amrita Gracias holds a degree in English Literature from Stella Maris College, Chennai and a Post Graduate Diploma in Journalism (specialising in Print Media) from the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. She takes to writing and editing when she isn’t answering to the duties of motherhood!
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