10 Fun Facts About Giraffes

2 Masai giraffes
'Masai giraffes (Giraffa cameleopardalis tippelskirchi), two males fighting, Masai Mara, Kenya. Michel & Christine Denis-Huot / Getty Images

With their long necks, richly patterned coats and stubby ossicones on their heads, Giraffes are among the most recognizable animals on earth. 

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The Giraffe Is the Tallest Living Terrestrial Animal

A giraffe in the savannah, Kenya

 Anton Petrus / Getty Images

When fully grown, male Giraffes can attain a height of almost 20 feet--most of that, of course, taken up by this mammal's elongated neck--and weight of a little over a ton. That makes the Giraffe the tallest living animal on earth, but not, of course, the tallest animal that ever lived--that honor belongs to the sauropod and titanosaur dinosaurs of the Mesozoic Era, some of which could reach heights of over 40 feet when holding their necks fully erect. (One of these dinosaurs, the appropriately named Giraffatitan, even looked a bit like a Giraffe!)

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Giraffes Are Even-Toed Ungulates

Giraffe walking

Chris Clor / Getty Images

Technically, Giraffes are classified as artiodactyls, or even-toed ungulates--which puts them in the same mammalian family as whales, pigs, deer, and cows, all of which evolved from a "last common ancestor" that probably lived sometime during the Eocene epoch, about 50 million years ago. Like most artiodactyls, Giraffes are sexually dimorphic--that is, males are significantly bigger than females, and the "ossicones" atop their heads have a slightly different appearance.

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There Are Nine Giraffe Subspecies

Three Masai Giraffes
The Masai Giraffe.

Jeff R Clow / Getty Images

While all Giraffes belong to the same genus and species, Giraffa camelopardalis, naturalists recognize nine separate subspecies: the Nubian Giraffe, the Reticulated Giraffe, the Angolan Giraffe, the Kordofan Giraffe, the Masai Giraffe, the South African Giraffe, the West African Giraffe, the Rhodesian Giraffe, and Rothschild's Giraffe. Most zoo Giraffes are either the Reticulated or Rothschild variety, which are roughly comparable in size but can be distinguished by the patterns of their coats.

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The Giraffe Used to Be Known as the "Camelopard"

Ethiopians bring their tributes before an Ancient Egyptian pharaoh
Ethiopians bring their tributes before an Ancient Egyptian pharaoh.

Stefano Bianchetti / Getty Images

The Giraffe has a long and distinguished etymological history. As far as experts can tell, its name derives from the Arabic word "zarafa," or "fast walker," and Arab travelers may themselves have adopted this word from a Somali tribe. In early English usage, the Giraffe was variously known as the Jarraf or Ziraf, and for a brief period it was called a "Camelopard"--the people of medieval England being especially fond of chimaeric beasts composed of the parts of other animals, in this case a leopard and a camel.

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The Closest Relative of the Giraffe is the Okapi

an okapi

Juergen & Christine Sohns / Getty Images

One of the things that makes the Giraffes so special is that no other animals on earth even remotely resemble it--unless you count the Okapi (Okapia johnstoni), a much smaller, vaguely Giraffe-like artiodactyl of central Africa. With its modest build and the black-and-white stripes on its hind legs, the Okapi looks like a cross between a zebra and a deer; the giveaways to its true evolutionary relationships are its slightly elongated neck and the Giraffe-like ossicones on its head.

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Giraffes Are Ruminant Mammals

A giraffe with his tongue sticking out
A giraffe chewing his cud.

 José Rosa / EyeEm / Getty Images

As you know if you've ever seen a cow, ruminants are mammals equipped with specialized stomachs that "pre-digest" their food; they're constantly chewing their "cud," a mass of semi-digested food ejected from their stomach and in need of further breakdown. Perhaps the reason most people don't realize Giraffes are ruminants is that it's difficult to see this animal chewing its cud; after all, a cow's head is roughly at eye level, but you really have to crane your neck to see the top of a Giraffe!

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The Structures on a Giraffe's Head Are Called Ossicones

A giraffe

 Micheal O Fiachra / EyeEm / Giraffes

The ossicones of Giraffes are unique structures. They aren't quite horns, and they aren't quite ornamental bumps; rather, they're hardened bits of cartilage covered by skin and anchored firmly to this animal's skull. It's unclear what the purpose of ossicones are; they may help males to intimidate one another during mating season, they may be a sexually selected characteristic (that is, males with more impressive ossicones are more attractive to females), or they may even help to dissipate heat in the blazing African sun. 

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Giraffes Are Accomplished "Neckers"

Giraffes necking
A pair of necking Giraffes.


Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography / Getty Images

Why do Giraffes have such long necks? The obvious answer is that elongated necks allow Giraffes to reach their favorite foods; the less obvious, and more likely, answer is that long necks are a sexually selected characteristic. During mating season, for instance, male Giraffes will engage in "necking," in which two combatants jostle one another and attempt to land blows with their ossicones. After these fights, it's not unusual for males to have make-up sex, one of the few clear examples of homosexuality in the animal kingdom.

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Giraffes Mate Very, Very Quickly

Giraffes mating
Giraffes mating.

Anup Shah / Getty Images

Granted, very few animals--other than humans--tend to linger in the act of mating, but at least Giraffes have a good reason to rush. During copulation, male Giraffes stand almost straight up on their hind legs, resting their front legs along the female's flanks, an awkward posture that would be literally unsustainable for more than a few minutes. Interestingly, Giraffe sex can provide clues about how dinosaurs like Apatosaurus and Diplodocus had sex--doubtless equally quickly, and with roughly the same posture.

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Full-Grown Giraffes Are Rarely Attacked in the Wild

Giraffe drinking
A drinking Giraffe.

Thomas Retterath / Getty Images

Once a Giraffe has reached its adult size, it's extremely unusual for it to be attacked, much less killed, by lions or hyenas; instead, these predators will target juvenile, sick, or aged individuals. However, an insufficiently wary Giraffe can easily be ambushed at a water hole, since it has to adopt an ungainly posture when taking a drink; Nile crocodiles have been known to chomp on the necks of full-grown Giraffes, drag them into the water, and feast at leisure on their copious carcasses.