ARTICLE

HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW GIRAFFES?

Credit | Steve Goodall

Updated on June 12, 2024

By Amy Phelps, Oakland Zoo
 

Standing between 14 and 19 feet tall, giraffes are the tallest land mammal. But outside of their stature, how much do you know about these majestic animals? Discover giraffe facts with California’s Oakland Zoo.

 

What you need to know about giraffes

Where do giraffes come from?

The story of modern-day giraffes takes us all the way back to the Miocene period — 23 to 5.3 million years ago. In those prehistoric times, an animal called the helladotherium, roamed Europe, Africa and Asia. Standing 15 feet tall at the shoulder, this now-extinct antelope-like creature was one of the largest ruminants ever to walk the planet. Today, the helladontherium only has two living relatives: the giraffe and the okapi.

While modern giraffes share similarities with their prehistoric relatives, they also possess unique characteristics.

 

A drawing of the skeleton of a giraffe.

 

Unique traits of giraffes

  • Over time, giraffes evolved their trademark long neck. Their heads and necks make up the upper five to seven feet of their stature.
  • Despite standing on fashion model legs, giraffes can run up to 30 mph for sustained periods of time.
  • Their necks and legs are also powerful weapons used in self-defense against their main predator: the lion. While lions are responsible for many giraffe calves not surviving their first year, adult giraffes can kill or severely injure a lion with a purposeful defensive kick.
  • When fighting over females, male giraffes swing their necks and strike one another with their horns, called ossicones.

 

A giraffe standing near water in a zoo exhibit.

Credit | Oakland Zoo, Steve Gotz

 

Giraffe bodies studied by NASA

With a head so far above their heart and a long distance to bend down to drink water, giraffes have a one-of-a-kind circulatory system. When they lower their head below their hearts, they have a specialized network of valves that begin to contract and prevent the blood from rushing to their heads. Their bodies are so uniquely adapted that they’ve been studied by scientists at NASA!

Scientists looking at tissue adaptations to gravitational stress examined the giraffe’s arterial blood pressure and found that near its heart, its blood pressure is almost twice that of humans! This functions to maintain normal blood pressure up their neck to their brain.

NASA also wanted to know why giraffes did not have swelling and pooling of fluid in their long legs. The thick, tight skin on giraffes fits like a super-powered wet suit and works to help drive blood and fluid upward against gravity.

 

Four giraffes standing, looking over a wooden fence. Behind them is dirt, trees and a body of water.

Credit | Oakland Zoo, Brittany Leonard

What’s a giraffe’s social structure?

NASA isn’t the only one researching giraffes. Scientists are learning more and more about this species every day, including about its social structure.

New research on giraffes has taught us that they are far more socially complex than we once thought. It was once believed that giraffes live in loosely associated groups with individuals moving between herds of animals with little to no social bonding. Current science has found that giraffes live social lives as rich and complex as whales and elephants.

Females often spend their entire lives together and work together to protect and raise their offspring. Female giraffes spend the last 30% of their lives in a post-reproductive state, focusing on helping to raise successive generations, much like humans.

 

A giraffe looking right at the camera. Behind the giraffe is its exhibit at the Oakland Zoo in California, which includes gift, palm trees and grass.

Maggie says hi!
Credit | Oakland Zoo, Taylor Duvall

 

Meet Maggie, Oakland Zoo’s senior giraffe

One of the best ways to learn more about giraffes is to see the species in real life and hear from the staff that provide for their daily welfare.

Visitors at Oakland Zoo have the pleasure of seeing its herd of six reticulated giraffes, a subspecies native to the Horn of Africa. One of these six is Maggie, the most senior giraffe at 14 years old.

Maggie was born opinionated and bold, and that has never changed. She’s a strong woman who walks through life with a fiery energy, making her especially beloved by the zoo’s keeper team. Maggie has a particular love for bananas and fresh romaine lettuce. She’s often the very first giraffe in line to eagerly meet zoo guests on tours and giraffe feeding experiences.

Maggie is a great ambassador for her species, allowing people to feel the soft whiskers of a giraffe’s muzzle, the pull of her strong tongue grasping food from their hands, and the rush of her warm, moist breath on their faces. Maggie connects zoo guests to giraffes and helps the zoo tell the story of her wild counterparts.

Most of the 200 million annual guests who visit Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) zoos each year will never travel to Africa to see wild giraffes, but they can see them in their backyard and experience their magic firsthand. These memories make giraffes accessible to all people and foster future generations of conservationists who work to ensure that giraffes thrive on this planet for years.

 

A close up of a giraffe sticking its tongue out. Its tongue is long and grey. In the background is other giraffes.

Credit | Oakland Zoo

 

How zoos and other organizations are protecting giraffes

Giraffes are an iconic species, but according to the IUCN Red List, giraffe populations have declined by 40% in the last 30 years. Even though most people know that African elephants experience significant conservation challenges in the wild, it’s a little-known fact that African elephant populations outnumber giraffes 4-to-1.

In 2024, giraffes are extinct in seven African countries. Giraffe populations face significant challenges to their survival because of habitat encroachment from growing human populations and change in how land is used, severe climate change events, disease transmission from nomadic livestock and the illegal bushmeat trade.

The Saving Animals from Extinction (SAFE) program, overseen by AZA, brings together member organizations and field conservation partners to collaborate on conservation efforts for endangered species in their natural habitats. Established in 2016, the AZA Giraffe SAFE program collaborates with conservation partners, zoos and zoo visitors to promote a world where thriving giraffe populations exist in the wild. With about one-third of AZA member zoos housing giraffes, Giraffe SAFE works to encourage and enable all giraffe facilities to support and take an active part in giraffe conservation efforts.

 

A giraffe standing tall in a grassy field in Africa.

 

How the Somali Giraffe Project helps native giraffes

Giraffe SAFE partners with the Somali Giraffe Project to conserve reticulated giraffes in Eastern Kenya. The population has declined by almost 60% in the last 30 years, leading to its endangered status. This region also has the largest reticulated giraffe population, about 11,000 individuals, but it’s simultaneously one of the most dangerous parts of the giraffe’s range. The lands here are largely unprotected by the government and immediately adjacent to the border with Somalia and the conflict throughout the area.

Giraffes in this area face significant threats to their survival. Along the Somali border, changing climates have led to severe drought throughout the region, forcing many pastoralists to move into farming since providing grazing and sufficient water for livestock has become increasingly difficult. The drought has led to a scarcity of foliage for giraffes, pushing them to venture into farmlands in search of food, leading to conflicts with farmers. Mango trees, a preferred crop in the area, are targeted by giraffes due to their flowers being a highly desired food source.

The Somali Giraffe Project has developed a program to help farmers switch out their mango crops for limes, a food source not palatable to giraffes. They have also linked these farmers with companies in Nairobi who will directly purchase their crops. The work of the Somali Giraffe Project has allowed farmers and giraffes to coexist peacefully. It’s also helped farmers see that working to protect giraffes is a link to community-based support that protects their family’s livelihood.

Illegal poaching efforts are also a threat to reticulated giraffe populations. Giraffes are snared and poached primarily for the illegal bushmeat trade. Somali Giraffe Project has developed a program to train Somali pastoralists to work as anti-poaching scouts and join the Kenya Wildlife Service to protect giraffes. Their efforts have significantly reduced poaching activities and increased swift prosecution and conviction of poaching offenders.

Somali Giraffe Project has also developed a mobile veterinary unit that works with Kenya Wildlife Service to provide emergency medical assistance and treatment to giraffes caught and injured in wire snares.

 

SAFE helps zoos tell the real, on-the-ground stories of the people working tirelessly to save endangered giraffe populations. Through guided tours led by specially trained staff, signage at animal habitats, special conservation fundraiser events and hands-on experiences meeting these magical animals face-to-face, zoo guests are connected to wild giraffes through personal interactions. It’s those connections that inspire people to care about the plight of these important animals.

Giraffes aren’t the only species the Oakland Zoo is working hard to protect. Learn about its mission to save mountain lions. Plus, discover the zoo’s program to help kids overcome their fears of animals.

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