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Giraffe – The Tallest Terrestrial Animal on the Planet

Group of giraffes

The Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), is today the tallest terrestrial animal on the planet that lives in Africa and is part of the Giraffa genus and also a member of the Giraffidae family.

Giraffes live today in Africa’s savannas and woodlands in countries such as Chad in the north up to South Africa in the south, and also from Niger in the west up to Somalia in the east.

Short History of the Giraffe

About 7 million years ago, the ancestor of the today’s giraffes was an animal called Samotherium major that was about the size of a bull moose and had a pretty long neck that was used to eat tree leaves, but also grass.

It seems that the today’s giraffe species have evolved from Samotherium that lived in Eurasia and had a long neck (about half the length of the neck of today’s giraffes).

Like all the other mammals, the neck of the Samotherium had seven vertebrae and was capable of stretching up to reach the tree leaves, but also down to eat grass.

Closer to our time, the giraffes lived on the entire African continent (excepting the Sahara desert).

In 2600 BC, they were entirely wiped out in Egypt due to hunting and in the 20th century they were almost entirely wiped out from western and southern Africa.

Today, the largest population of wild giraffes lives in Tanzania and was saved from total extinction as a result of the conservation efforts.

Giraffe Taxonomy

The most recent study (2016), concluded that today, we have four species of giraffes in the wild such as: the Northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), the Reticulated giraffe (Giraffa reticulata), the Southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa), and the Masai giraffe (Giraffa tippelskirchi).

1. Northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis): is known as the three-horned giraffe and was proposed as a native species to North Africa.

The Northern giraffe consists of three subspecies such as:

1. The Kordofan giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis antiquorum)

Is a subspecies of giraffe that lives today in Northern Cameroon, Southern Chad, in the Central African Republic and maybe in Western Sudan.

This is a smaller giraffe (reaching a height of only 5 to 6 meters) with a large number of irregular spots on the inner legs.

Today we have only about 2,000 individuals living in the wild.

2. The Nubian giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis)

This is a subspecies of giraffe that includes the Rothschild’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi).

The Nubian giraffe is extinct today in countries like Egypt, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but can be found in countries like Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Sudan and South Sudan.

The Nubian giraffe has very well defined chestnut-colored spots, which are surrounded by white lines, and there are no spots on the undersides.

The Rothschild’s giraffe is also known as the Baringo giraffe or the Ugandan giraffe and can be easily distinguished from the other subspecies of giraffe because it has orange-brown patches that are not very sharp in shape.

On the lower legs, the Rothschild’s giraffe displays no markings, which makes the animal look like it is wearing white socks.

This giraffe also has five ossicones on the head (two being located behind each ear).

3. The West African giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis peralta)

The West African giraffe also called the Nigerien giraffe lives today in the Sahel regions of West Africa.

Can be easily distinguished due to its light colored spots.

The ossicones on the head are more erect than in other subspecies of giraffe.

2. The Reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata) also known as the Somali giraffe, is a subspecies of giraffe native to the Horn of Africa.

Can be found today in countries like Somalia, Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia.

This giraffe has a very distinctive coat with sharp-edged polygonal patches that are reddish brown in color, and are divided by a network of white lines.

3. The Southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa) is a native species to South Africa and is known as the two-horned giraffe.

The Southern giraffe consists of two subspecies such as:

1. The Angolan giraffe (Giraffa giraffa angolensis)

The Angolan giraffe is known today as the Namibian giraffe and can be found in Northern Namibia, Botswana, Southwestern Zambia and Western Zimbabwe.

This subspecies of giraffe has large brown blotches with edges that have angular extensions or are somehow notched.

There are no patches on the upper part of the face and has white ears.

2. The South African giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis giraffa)

The South African giraffe also known as the Cape giraffe is a subspecies of giraffe that lives today in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

It features rounded or blotched spots that run down to the hooves, some having star-like extensions with a light tan background.

4. Masai giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchii) consists of two subspecies.

1. The Masai giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchii)

The Masai giraffe also known as the Kilimanjaro giraffe, can be found today in Central and Southern Kenya, Tanzania and the Luangwa Valley in Zambia.

This is a giraffe native to East Africa and is the largest subspecies of giraffe known today.

It features distinctive, irregular and jagged, star-like blotches that extend to the hooves, and males usually have a median lump.

2. The Thornicroft’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis thornicrofti)

The Thornicroft’s giraffe also known as the Rhodesian giraffe is a geographically isolated subspecies of giraffe.

It lives today only in Zambia’s South Luangwa Valley.

Rhodesian giraffe is a tall animal with very long neck.

Its blotches are dark-colored and has skin-colored horns.

Giraffe Characteristics

Adult giraffes reach an average height between 14.1 and 18.7 ft (4.3 and 5.7 m), and males are taller and heavier than the females.

The tallest male giraffe ever recorded had a height of 19.3 ft (5.88 m) and the tallest female ever recorded had the height of 17 ft (5.17 m).

In terms of weight, females reach in average a weight of 1,825 lbs (828 kg), while the males being heavier, can reach a weight of 2,628 lbs (1,192 kg).

The heaviest male giraffe ever recorded had a weight of 4,250 lbs (1,930 kg), and the heaviest female ever recorded had a weight of 2,600 lbs (1,180 kg).

The head of the giraffe is quite small compared to the body, but the eyes are pretty large giving the animal a good vision, especially due to the extreme height.

On the head, an adult giraffe can have between two and five ossicones (according to the subspecies) and the ears being white in color and used for hearing, but also to communicate with other giraffes.

Besides a good vision and a good hearing, the giraffe also has a well-developed sense of smell.

The prehensile tongue of the giraffe is 18 in (45 cm) long, and has a purplish-black color, maybe as a protection against sunlight.

When eating, the giraffe uses both its prehensile tongue to grab the leaves and also its upper lip which is also prehensile.

The coat of the animal is covered with blotches or patches (these can be reddish, orange, chestnut, brown or almost black in color).

The body of the giraffe is quite short compared to its long neck and legs, and the tail with the length of about 3.3 ft (1 meter) ends in a dark tuft of hair.

The long neck of the giraffe is used to reach the tall leaves of the trees and can measure a length between 6.6 and 7.9 ft (2 to 2.4 m).

Giraffe Behavior and Social Organization

Giraffes are very social animals because they live in groups than have up to 44 individuals.

The groups are usually based on the sex of the individuals, but mixed groups can occur when mothers stay in the group with their young offsprings.

Such groups (mixed) can last for weeks or even months.

There are also groups of young males that are usually engaged in play fights.

When attacked by predators, an adult giraffe can run reaching a speed of 37 mph (60 km/h), or can maintain an average speed of 31 mph (50 km/h) for several miles.

Giraffe Reproduction

Female giraffes become sexually mature at the age of four years, while the males become sexually mature only at the age of five years.

Male giraffes will have no right to mate until the age of seven years (older males will keep them away from the females in heat).

Older males will usually choose young and fertile females instead of the older females.

When a male detects an oestrous female (a female in heat) he will attempt to court her, and the subordinate males will be kept at bay.

The gestation period lasts between 400 and 460 days, and the female will give birth to only one calf (rarely twins).

The newborn giraffe will already have a height between 5.6 and 6.6 ft (1.7 and 2 meters).

Mothers with calves usually gather in nursery groups.

In these groups, mothers can leave their calves with one female while they go to forage and drink water elsewhere.

When attacked by predators, the calf will move between the mother’s legs for protection, and the mother will kick the predators with her legs to chase them off.

A mother can keep her calf up to the arrival of the next calf.

Giraffes can reach the age of 25 years in the wild.

Giraffe Conservation

Giraffes can be found in the savannahs and open woodlands of Africa, in areas where they can find trees and bushes such as Acacieae, Commiphora and Combretum.

They also prefer open woodlands of Terminalia and dense woodlands of Brachystegia.

Today, the IUCN Red list considers the giraffe as vulnerable, but some of the subspecies are endangered and one is almost extinct (the West African giraffe – Giraffa camelopardalis peralta).

Giraffes are mostly hunted for meat and to manufacture different products from their body parts.

However, the giraffes are protected species in most of their actual range, and thanks to the private reserves and the national parks, their number is no longer decreasing at the same pace as in the past.

Giraffe range and distribution

Giraffe range and distribution in Africa

Article written by:

Darius Savin is a lifelong animal lover and protector and the chief editor of Checkmember. He writes and edits articles and is also the creator of the distribution maps for all the creatures featured here.