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5.05 (4.86-5.27) m
16.57 (15.94-17.29) ft
4.44 (4.16-4.75) m
14.57 (13.65-15.58) ft
3.31 (3.13-3.47) m
10.86 (10.27-11.38) ft
2.80 (2.72-2.92) m
9.19 (8.92-9.58) ft
||76-110 cm (30-43 in)
1191.8 (973-1395) kg
2627.5 (2145-3075) lb
828.4 (703-950) kg
1826.3 (1550-2094) lb
(Kingdon 1997, tail length; Ciofolo and Le Pendu 2013, all other measurements)
*Notes on measurements:
Tail length: range values. All other measurements cited as mean value (± 1 standard deviation). Sample size is 15-18 individuals for all Ciofolo and Le Pendu (2013) data.
*Total length: Measured from tip of snout to posterior end of tail. Equivalent to the head and body length and tail length added together.
Characteristics (Wilson and Mittermeier 2011, except as noted)
- Tallest mammal
- Very long neck
- Short, stiff mane
- Long, black hair on tail; used as an insect-swatter (Dagg 2014)
- Shoulders high, sloping down to hind quarters. Legs of approximately equal size. Apparent slope caused by tall dorsal spines on the thoracic vertebrae.
- No upper incisors or canines
- Long prehensile tongue: 50 cm (20 in)
- Large brown eyes bordered by long, black lashes
- Large hooved feet
Ossicone "horns" (Wilson and Mittermeier 2011)
- Specific to Giraffids
- Horn-like growths
- Permanent and unbranched
- Different than true horns (kertain and other proteins covering bone), but often called "horns" in literature
- Found in other animals, like cattle, buffalo, antelope, and rhinocerous
- Bony in adults; soft and cartilagenous in calves
- Ossification proceeds from the skill, eventually fusing with the skull
- Covered by skin and hair (except the tips, which are hairless, especially in males)
- Up to 13.5 cm (5.3 in) long
- See Sexual Dimorphism, below, for differences between adult male and female horns.
- Ossicones present at birth.
- Formed of small bumps of cartilage, unattached to skull.
- Covered with skin and tufts of hair.
- Background is medium-to-reddish brown. Broken into splotches by buff-colored borders.
- Pattern does not change.
- Blotches of some individuals (particularly males) may darken with age (Berry and Bercovitch 2012).
- Likely not characteristic of all giraffe
- In males, turn from brownish to coal-black between about 7-10 years of age.
- Evolutionary significance of this darkening unknown.
- Individuals can be recognized by their unique markings.
- Rarely, individuals without spots are born all dark (almost black), tan (spots barely visible), or white (although no true albinos have been observed)
- Reticulated giraffe, Kordofan giraffe, and Nubian giraffe have distinctive coat markings (Fennessy et al. 2016)
- Adult males substantially taller and heavier than females
Horns (ossicones) (Wilson and Mittermeier 2011)
- Females: two ossicones
- Generally thinner than in males
- Ends are tufted with hair
- Males: commonly, two ossicones
- Ends hairless, often callused
- May also have a medial ossicone
- Center of forehead
- Secondary sexual male characteristic
- Absent in females, though a ridge may be present
- Sometimes, additional ossicones behind the primary pair
- Also see horn development.
- Skulls of mature males typically weigh 2-3 times that of females; extensive ossification over front of skull, above the eyes, and on the rostrum.
- Females may have additional bony knobs on forehead; not as extensive as in males.
Other Physical and Physiological Characteristics
- Possess 7 cervical vertebrae, the same as other mammals (Wilson and Mittermeier 2011).
- Each of these vertebra is greatly elongated, producing the longest mammalian neck (Wilson and Mittermeier 2011).
- Neck ligaments enlarged and strengthened to support heavy neck and head (Agaba et al. 2016).
- Can distinguish between red, orange, yellow-green, green, blue, and violet.
- Color: dark gray (Wilson and Mittermeier 2011)
- Thicker skin on flanks and rump may protect against lion claw wounds (Sather et al. 2010; Strauss and Packer 2012).
- Sweat glands present, but do not seem to functional; may be remnants of the the giraffe's evolutionary ancestors (Dagg 2014).
- Patches radiate heat. May help in very hot weather.
- Giraffe's cardiovascular system thought to have co-evolved with its unique skeletal traits (Agaba et al. 2016).
- Specializations regulate blood flow to the giraffe's head (Wilson and Mittermeier 2011; Dagg 2014).
- Giraffes are up to 18 feet tall, and one would expect blood to rush to the brain when a giraffe lowers its head to drink, or to drain away from the brain when the head is lifted back up.
- Either scenario could result in fainting.
- High blood pressure helps maintain sufficient blood flow to the brain.
- Systemic (arterial) blood pressure at birth is comparable to other mammals, but it rises as a giraffe grows and its neck elongates (Mitchell and Skinner 2009).
- Average systemic blood pressure is 203 mm Hg, dropping to 100 mm Hg at the head (Mitchell and Skinner 2009; calculated average of 29 reports).
- Systemic blood pressure at the heart with the neck held 55° to the vertical is calculated to be 208 mm Hg—nearly twice the predicted value for other species of similar mass (Mitchell and Skinner 2009).
- Genes, controlling cell shape and heart muscle contraction, help regulate blood pressure (Agaba et al. 2016)
- Heart structure: quite different from other mammals
- An early study (Goetz 1955) reported a very large (11.25 kg) heart for giraffes, but this may have been an error in measurement.
- A comprehensive study of the giraffe cardiovascular system (Mitchell and Skinner 2009) showed heart size relative to body mass to be comparable to that of other mammals.
- Heart structure is quite different from that of other mammals (Mitchell and Skinner 2009)
- As a giraffe grows, the left ventricular and interventricular walls become much thicker than in other mammals, enabling the heart to contract much more strongly.
- A giraffe heart can generate an output of 6,000 mm Hg per second, 2.5 times that of a cow heart and 5 times that of a human heart (Patterson et al. 1965).
- Valves and large veins play a role when the head is lowered
- Numerous one-way valves in the jugular vein and its offshoots prevent blood from flowing back to the brain.
- The jugular vein, which is large (2.5 cm, 1 inch, in diameter) and elastic, stretches to increase its capacity and act as a blood reservoir, counteracting the force of gravity on the blood.
- Muscle fibers play a role when the head is raised
- Muscle fibers surround veins that lead to the heart.
- These contract when the head is raised, slowing the flow of blood.
Coping with the African heat (Dagg 2014)
- Unusual body shape provides a large surface area. Easier to dissipate heat than retain it (a disadvantage in cooler weather).
- Raise body temperature during the day, up to 40°C, to reduce water loss.
- Brain is cooled as the giraffe breathes through its nose.
Medium-to-Reddish Brown Pelage
Close up of young giraffe.
Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.
Berry and Bercovitch (2012)
Mitchell and Skinner (2009)
Patterson et al. (1965)
Sather et al. (2010)
Wilson and Mittermeier (2011)
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