Celebrating Long Necks

A tall order in conservation

For the species with the longest neck, and the tallest living mammal on the planet, it is only fitting that the official day to celebrate them is the longest day of the year: June 21 is World Giraffe Day.

BY Karyl Carmignani

Photography by Ken Bohn
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Long vaunted as a quiet, elegant, ubiquitous species of Africa, recent studies indicate that the giraffe’s numbers have fallen significantly over the last few decades. Giraffe populations have declined from about 140,000 in the late 1990s to fewer than 85,000 today, largely due to habitat loss and poaching. Scientists call this ominous decline a silent extinction. Raising awareness about the plight of the giraffe and supporting their conservation is giving them a boost on this World Giraffe Day…and every day!

Tower of Power

Giraffes are the tallest mammals in the world, due to their elongated neck and extended legs, looming 14 to 19 feet tall. They weigh 1,750 to 2,800 pounds—as much as a midsize sedan! Their unmatched height gives them an advantage—they can browse on leaves that other animals cannot reach, using their sticky, 18-inch-long tongue. A group of giraffes is aptly called a tower.

Fleet Feet

Graceful runners, these animals can reach 35 miles per hour over short distances. A leisurely jaunt carries them 10 miles per hour. Youngsters hit the ground running (almost) and can follow their mother within hours of being born.

Thirsty?

It is dangerous and awkward for giraffes to slake their thirst at a water hole. They must splay their front legs wide to allow their head to drop down to the water, leaving them vulnerable to predators. Fortunately, they only need to drink this way once every several days, as the leaves they consume contain moisture.

Spot the Difference

Once thought to be a single species split into nine subspecies, an important giraffe secret was revealed in 2016: genetics work revealed that there are actually four distinct lineages of giraffe that do not interbreed in the wild.

DIFFERENT COAT
While it may seem that all giraffes look alike, there’s actually significant differences to their coat patterns. Above, from left to right: Masai, reticulated, and Uganda giraffe.

The study tracked seven genetic sequences using nuclear DNA from skin biopsies and mitochondrial DNA of 190 giraffes. Giraffa camelopardalis is now joined by the southern giraffe G. giraffe; the Masai giraffe G. tippelskirchi; the reticulated giraffe G. reticulata, and the northern giraffe G. camelopardalis. The Nubian giraffe G. camelopardalis camelopardalis is the lone subspecies of the northern giraffe.

Let’s Get Physical

Both males (left) and females (right) sport fuzzy protuberances on the top of their enormous head, called ossicones. The males’ can get very knobby with age, and sparring with other males wears off the fur on the tips. The ossicones on females remain fuzzy for life. It takes a 20-pound heart to keep a giraffe’s blood pumping—their blood pressure is about twice as high as a human’s. Females are pregnant for 14 to 16 months, then give birth to a single 6-foot-tall calf that is up on its wobbly legs almost immediately after hitting the ground. Adult giraffes eat about 75 pounds of leafy food each day.

Nice Neck

How many vertebrae does a giraffe’s neck have? Seven—just like ours! But on a giraffe, each vertebra is nearly a foot long. There are about nine different distinct coat patterns among giraffes, and scientists use individual coat patterns to tell them apart. Often, the spot patterns on their neck are the first to be detected. Other hoofed animals associate with giraffes, as their huge eyes—perched two stories above the ground—can detect danger long before it reaches the group. Sometimes birds ride atop the giraffe’s neck, pecking at parasites in their hair.

In the Field

San Diego Zoo Global is partnering with others to protect the remaining 9,000 or so reticulated giraffes in northern Kenya. The Reticulated Giraffe Conservation with Pastoralists initiative has been launched at two sites, hiring and training a team of Kenyans from local communities as Twiga Walinzi (Giraffe Guards). Their work includes managing a network of 120 strategically positioned trail cameras that allow monitoring of giraffes and other wildlife; developing a photo ID database so individual giraffes can be tracked; conducting snare removal patrols and informing rangers about poaching incidents; caring for young orphaned giraffes; and advocating for giraffes within their communities.

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