Classification and Range
Giraffes belong to the family Giraffidae, which has only one other species, the okapi. There are nine recognized subspecies of giraffe: Nigerian (G.c. peralta), Kordofan (G.c. antiquorum), Nubian (G.c. camelopardalis), Reticulated (G.c. reticulata), Rothschild (G.c. rothschildi), Masai (G.c. tippelskirchi), Thornicroft (G.c. thornicrofti), Angolan (G.c. angolensis) and South African or Cape (G.c. giraffa). All subspecies of giraffe are distinguished by their coat pattern and geographical distribution. Giraffes live mostly in eastern sub-Saharan Africa, while certain populations also live in the western and southern parts of the continent.
Giraffes live in both open savanna areas and wooded grasslands.
Adult males stand 15-18 feet (4.6-5.5 m) tall, whereas females are shorter at 13-16 feet (4-4.8 m) tall. Adult males weigh between 1,764-4,255 pounds (800-,930 kg), while females weigh only 1,213-2,601 pounds (550-1,180 kg).
Giraffes live for 10-15 years in the wild, but average 25 years at zoos.
In the wild: Various species of acacias. They also browse from the leaves and shoots of trees or shrubs of other species, but they are selective.
At the zoo: Alfalfa hay and pellets, apples, carrots, bananas and browse (elm and alder are favorites
Giraffes reach sexual maturity in captivity at 3-4 years of age. However, in the wild, males may not breed until ages 6 or 7, due to a system of hierarchy among bulls. In contrast to the male breeding age, females must be physically larger to carry offspring. Breeding season can occur at any time. Gestation is usually 13-15 months.
In the wild, birth occurs in the dry months, but in captivity, births can happen year-round. The mother delivers a single calf while standing upright. At birth, calves weigh 104-154 pounds (47-70 Kg), and stand 72-76 inches (183-193 cm) tall. Calves grow about 1.2 inches (3 cm) per day during the first week, and are 10 feet (3 m) tall by age 1. Calves can walk within an hour of birth, and usually can run within 24 hours. Young may suckle for up to a year, but they start to sample plants just a few weeks after birth. Calves are ready to leave the protection of their mother after 15-18 months of development. Less than 50% of all baby giraffes survive the first year of life, due to predation from hyenas, leopards and wild dogs. As giraffes increase in age, their main predators become lions and humans.
Giraffes live in loosely bound, scattered herds of 10-20 (up to 100), and may contain any possible combination of sexes and ages. Males establish and maintain their hierarchy by "necking" contests, or occasional violent sparring matches. Each individual knows its relative status in the hierarchy, which minimizes aggression. The top-ranked male has first choice to the best feeding areas and ovulating females.
Males and females feed from different parts of trees; the male chooses higher branches, and the female forages from the lower ones. This behavior ensures that the sexes don't compete for food within a given range.
Growing to an impressive height gives giraffes access to a level of foliage beyond reach of all other large browsers, save the elephant. Along with their height, giraffes have an incredible array of adaptations. For example, their skin coloring provides excellent camouflage, as it is several different patches of variable size and color. The skin is thick for protection and insulation. Also, the giraffe's long eyelashes keep out ants and sense thorns on the branches of the trees from which they browse. The valves in veins of the neck control a huge rush of blood to the head when leaning over; this prevents unconsciousness. There is also a network of capillaries in the brain called the "wonder-net." It acts a bit like a shock absorber and is another part of the system that prevents unconsciousness.
A giraffe's tongue is over 18 inches (46 cm) long, and the roof of the mouth is grooved to easily strip leaves off branches. Since giraffes are extremely efficient at processing nutrients and liquids from food, they can survive without water for long periods of time.
Giraffes ruminate at day or night, interspersed with periods of sleeping. They also rest with their eyes open, standing or lying for three to five minutes at a time. Throughout the night, a giraffe may deeply sleep for five to 10 minutes lying down, yet they rarely sleep more than 20 minutes total per day.
Location at the Zoo
Woodland Park Zoo's reticulated giraffes are in the zoo's award-winning African Savanna. During wet and cold conditions, the giraffes usually stay in their barn. The warm and dry barn is just off the savanna, and visitors can see the giraffes through the tall entry and exit doors. Other animals seen in this exhibit area are lions, zebras, hippopotamus and fringe-eared oryx, to name a few.
Giraffes are prevalent throughout Africa, and currently their status in the wild is not in immediate danger. Though eliminated from most of their former ranges, giraffes are still reasonably widespread. For all giraffes, their present distribution is reduced or restricted due to hunting and poaching. Local tribes kill giraffes for hair, horns, skin and meat. Habitat loss and human encroachment have also reduced available territory for giraffes. To ensure their continued survival, giraffes need suitable, stable, and large areas of habitat for their feeding ranges.
Fortunately, giraffes are easy to breed in captivity. Woodland Park Zoo participates in the Association of Zoos & Aquariums' (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) for giraffes and follows the recommended guidelines for captive management and breeding plans for the species. To date, 11 giraffes have been born at Woodland Park Zoo, but two were stillborn. Most of these young giraffes have gone to other zoos in the USA.
Woodland Park Zoo Is Helping-With Your Support!
The giraffe is a highly iconographic African savanna species. Their presence on the savanna immeasurably increase eco-tourism, providing income to the local population without harming native animals. For many animals, flexible and sustainable conservation programs are essential. In zoos, giraffes help demonstrate the interdependency of all species. Breeding programs that maintain healthy captive animals are vital for the future of the species. Respect for traditional lifestyle and education support empowers local populations to help save their ecosystem and the giraffes dependent upon it.
Each in-situ project supported by the zoo aims to provide a broad, holistic approach to conservation, encompassing research, education, habitat and species preservation. This includes comprehensive, cooperative strategies to link the needs of animals with the people who share their ecosystems.
How You Can Help!
Woodland Park Zoo contributes information to the captive breeding, husbandry and public awareness of this intriguing native species. The effort to save animal species requires cooperation and support at the international, national, regional, and individual levels. You can help in this cause. Join and become active in Woodland Park Zoo and other conservation organizations of your choice. Let your elected representatives know your views on protecting endangered species and wild habitats. Please do not buy products made from wild animal parts.
Contact Woodland Park Zoo at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out about ways you can support conservation programs at the zoo. Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and the habitats they require for survival by visiting our How You Can Help page.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Dagg, Anne Innis and Foster, J. Bristol. 1982. The Giraffe: Its Biology, Behavior, and Ecology. Krieger Publishing Co., Malabar, FL. 232 p.
Estes, Richard D. 1991. The Behavior Guide to African Mammals. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles. CA. 611 p.
Giraffe Central: http://www.isidore-of-seville.com/giraffe
Bailey, Donna. 1992. Giraffes (Animal World Series). Chatham, NJ. 32 p.
Zoobooks. 1996. Giraffes. Wildlife Education, Ltd., San Diego, CA. 17 p.
Planet Pets Web site: http://www.planet-pets.com/plntgraf.htm
Spook's Photography Page: http://sailfish.exis.net/~spook/girtxt.html
Wildlife FactFile. 1991. Group 1: Mammals, Giraffe. Card 27 in Packet 2a. 4 p.
Woodland Park Zoo Animal Management Staff: Personal Correspondence
Woodland Park Zoo - Teacher's Packet Fact Sheet (Reticulated Giraffe)