Scientific Classification

Common Name
Genus Species
Giraffa (one who walks swiftly) camelopardalis (camel marked like a leopard)

Fast Facts

Giraffes are the tallest of the land animals. It is a hooved mammal with short, wiry hair that varies in colors among the various races. The background coloring is cream with borders of gold to orange and the splotches are brown to black.
Height (to top of head): newborns average 1.8 m (6 ft.); adults range 4.25 to 5.5 m (14 to 18 ft.)
Male:  Up to 6.2 m (18.6 ft.)
Female:  Up to 5.3 m (15.7 ft.)
Male:  1,100 to 1,915 kg (2,420 to 4,215 lbs.)
Female: 700 to 1,181 kg (1,540 to 2,600 lbs.)
Selective browsers that prefer new growth foliage of acacia, mimosa brush, and Combretum trees 2 to 5 m (6.6 to 16.5 ft.) high; feed on shoots & leaves of 100+ plant species, including some herbs; choice determined by seasonal and local availability
Approximately 15 months (450 to 465 days); typically one offspring at a time
Sexual Maturity
Male:  Approximately 3.5 years; usually will not breed until at least 8 years of age
Female: Approximately 4 to 5 years
Life Span
20 to 25 years, 28 year approximate max
African regions south of the Sahara Desert
Savannah, bush, scrub, and open acacia woodlands; semi-arid regions to regions of dense vegetation
Global: Unknown
IUCN: Lower Risk/Conservation Dependent
CITES: Not listed
USFWS: Not listed
Currently not protected except within national parks

Fun Facts

  1. Giraffes strip leaves from thorny acacia trees, sometimes colonized by ants, with their 45 cm (18 in.) long, prehensile tongues.
  2. Bull giraffes forage higher in trees than cow giraffes which reduces food competition between the sexes.
  3. Long-legged giraffes walk with the limbs on one side of the body lifted at the same time. This gait is called a pace and allows a longer stride which saves steps and energy.
  4. A mother giraffe often gives birth while standing so that the newborn's first experience outside the womb is a 1.8 m (6 ft.) drop!
  5. For the first four to five months, calves congregate in nursery groups called creches to rest and socialize while mothers forage in the distance.
  6. Giraffes have seven elongated vertebrae in their neck unlike most mammals, an adaptation for feeding high in the trees.
  7. Giraffes are the tallest mammal. They are often called the watchtowers of the Serengeti, keeping track of predators. Their extreme long-range vision enables visual communication with other giraffes over several miles.
  8. Because their necks are shorter than their legs, they must spread their front legs wide in order to reach the water to drink. Their neck veins contain valves and a network of tiny veins to constrict blood flow to their brain when they lower their head to drink in order to prevent blackouts.
  9. Each has unique markings, which distinguish it from others, much like a human fingerprint.
  10. Giraffe markings allow them to hide among trees.
  11. A giraffe's tongue is purplish-black and can extend almost twenty inches! This adaptation is thought to keep the tongue from sunburn during their all-day feed.
  12. Giraffes are one of the few species of mammal to perceive color, and their visual field approaches 360° from their tremendous height.
  13. They are quite agile and can run up to 56 kph (35 mph), and have been known to jump 1.8 m (6 ft).

Ecology and Conservation

Giraffes have a special niche in the African savanna. They are able to reach a six-foot band of foliage beyond the reach of all other terrestrial browsers except elephants. Their long tongue is useful for grasping leaves in the crowns of trees. (They also have a modified joint at the base of the skull that allows their head to extend vertically to reach the highest branches.) Giraffes only drink water every 2 to 3 days, but can drink up to 10 gallons at a time. They gather most of their water from the vegetation they eat.

The continuous, selective browsing habits of giraffes slow the growth of favorite bush and tree species. This foraging behavior maintains the open woodlands inhabited by many African ruminants.

(It is interesting to note that the seeds of some species of acacia trees will not germinate unless they pass through the giraffe's digestive system.)

Several types of birds, such as the oxpecker, perch on giraffes and form a mutually beneficial relationship. The birds find food by eating parasites picked from giraffes' skin and hair. This helps giraffes because parasites potentially could weaken them physically and leave them more vulnerable to prey.

The encroachment of human populations on their natural habitat has been devastating to the wild population, especially in West Africa.

Mankind has historically honored giraffes. African cave paintings included them, probably as favored prey, and ancient Egyptian art frequently featured giraffe designs. In fact, giraffe tail hairs are still collected for jewelry, and the hide is used to make sandals and ceremonial shields. Some tribes treat nose bleeds with the smoke from burning giraffe skin. Unfortunately giraffes antagonize farmers more and more, often when the animals forage on crops and compete with domestic stock for resources. This conflict is likely to escalate in the future as the African human population continues to increase.

In a cooperative effort with other AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) institutions, Busch Gardens closely manages giraffe populations through a program called the Species Survival Plan (SSP), which works to improve the genetic diversity of managed animal populations.


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Dagg, A.I., and Foster, J.B. The Giraffe: Its Biology Behavior and Ecology. Florida: Robert E. Publishing Co., 1982.

Estes, R.D. The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals. Post Mills, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 1993.

Grzimek, B. (ed.) Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Mammals. Vol 5. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Co., 1990.

Kingdon, Jonathon. East African Mammals, An Atlas of Evolution in Africa. Vol. III, Part B, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1979.

Macdonald, David (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Mammals: 2. London: George, Allen & Unwin, 1985.

Nowak, Ronald (ed.). Walker's Mammals of the World. Vol. II, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1991.