TOWERING GIANT OF THE BUSH
Although the giraffe did not make it into the top famous five of the bush, it’s a serious contender for inclusion in the top six. With their towering necks, distinctive spots, and graceful presence, giraffes are true icons of the bush. It’s hard to miss them – they are the tallest animals on land. Their iconic status is reflected by the plethora of giraffe items on display at tourist curiosity outlets.
There is so much that is odd about giraffes it’s difficult to choose a top contender, but in the running must be that giraffes only need 5 to 30 minutes of sleep in a 24-hour period! They often achieve that in quick naps that may last only a minute or two at a time. In second place must be that there is just so much that is “long” about giraffes.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
One of the most striking features of these animals is undoubtedly their elongated necks. A giraffe’s neck can measure up to 1.8 meters in length. Contrary to popular belief, these long necks do not contain more bones than those of other animals; they are simply elongated versions of the same set of seven neck vertebrae that other mammals possess.
The primary purpose of the giraffe’s long neck is to reach food sources in the upper canopies of trees, such as “acacias” (although the Australians have pilfered this name from us, we refuse to let it go). This adaptation enables giraffes to access food supplies at the top of trees that many other herbivores cannot reach, allowing them to thrive in savannas and woodlands. In addition, the giraffe’s agile tongue can extend up to 45 centimetres, grasping and stripping leaves and buds in between acacia thorns with remarkable dexterity.
Their legs are also amazingly long, so the long neck makes it possible for the animal to reach down to water, but even then it has to stand with legs apart to drink. This requires some careful manoeuvring! Fortunately, giraffes only need to drink once every few days as most of their water comes from the plants they eat. Their legs alone are taller than many humans—also about 1.8 metres. With their long legs they can run amazingly fast, up to around 50 kph. Their gait is different to other quadrupeds, as they move their legs “side after side” rather than alternately.
Photo: Psychology Today
Because their long necks and legs make it awkward to get up from a prone position, giraffes spend most of their lives standing up; they even sleep and give birth standing up. A giraffe calf can stand up and walk after about an hour and within a week, it starts to sample vegetation. Despite the females’ attempts to protect their calves from predators, many calves are killed in their first few months by lions, spotted hyenas, leopards and African wild dogs.
Giraffes also possess distinctive coat patterns, which are not only visually appealing but serve as a means of individual identification. It is said that the spots on their coats are as unique as human fingerprints, making it easier for researchers to track and study specific individuals. Interestingly, the coat’s patterns might play a role in thermoregulation, as the darker spots are thought to absorb and radiate heat, thus helping giraffes to regulate their body temperature.
Giraffes are known to form loose social groups – appropriately called “towers”. These towers can consist of a few individuals or as many as twenty, and they often include both males and females. The social structure within a tower is typically flexible, and individual giraffes may associate with different tower members at different times. This social behaviour is crucial for protection against predators, as well as for locating food and water sources.
While giraffes are generally peaceful animals, they can engage in aggressive behaviours such as ‘necking’. The term has a different meaning to the necking we indulged in as teenagers. In giraffes it involves males using their necks as weapons to establish dominance or compete for access to females. These interactions appear very fierce and one fears one of the necks could be badly damaged, but they are usually largely ritualistic and rarely result in serious injuries. Both male and female giraffes have two distinct, hair-covered horns called “ossicones” and male giraffes may also use these horns in fights with other males.
It is well known that African thorn trees (acacias) communicate with each other – as do many other species of trees. Recent research has revealed that beneath the soil surface, a complex and fascinating communication network exists among trees, allowing them to warn each other about potential threats, such as predators and pests. This phenomenon, known as “tree communication,” shows the intricate ways in which nature adapts and collaborates.
At the heart of tree communication is a system often referred to as the “wood wide web”, which describes the intricate network of fungal threads called mycorrhizae that connect trees underground. These fungal threads form symbiotic relationships with trees, aiding in nutrient and water exchange.
It’s through these mycorrhizal networks that trees can communicate and share vital information. When a tree is under attack by a predator, such as a giraffe, it releases chemical signals into the air or soil. These signals serve as an alarm, alerting neighbouring trees to the impending threat.
Neighbouring trees respond by increasing their production of defensive chemicals such as tannins to make their own leaves less appealing to herbivores. This sophisticated communication enables trees to prepare for threats, even if they are not directly affected by the initial attack.
Giraffes are surprisingly smart. They have learned that neighbouring trees, especially those downwind of the tree that has been browsed, will in short order contain unpalatable tannins, so the giraffe will continue browsing on trees further away, especially those upwind of the initial attack.
Recently researchers have shown that giraffes are capable of “statistical reasoning”. Until now, primates and birds were the only animals to show evidence of statistical reasoning. Primates and birds are both considered to have large brains relative to body size, which is often linked with higher intelligence. But what about giraffes that have very small brains relative to their body size? How does a giraffe demonstrate statistical reasoning? You may well ask, but it’s too daft to explain here.
So while we ponder the giraffe’s mental skills, let’s admire their graceful appearance that has inspired artists, writers, and scientists for centuries. Their symbolic significance represents elegance, adaptability, and resilience in the face of challenges. All qualities we would do well to emulate!