I have spent a number of years up in East Africa, specifically Kenya and Tanzania which is where I am currently working and travelling around.

As Tanzania’s national animal is the Giraffe – Twiga in swahili – I thought I would share some of the interesting things about our tallest wonder.

We all know Giraffes are tall – the tallest mammals on earth, in fact – but here are some lesser known facts about one of Africa’s most intriguing animals.

giraffe head and neck

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Types of Giraffe

There are different types of giraffe, and every single one has a unique pattern just like our fingerprints.

There are 4 distinct species of giraffe identified in Africa: Masai, Southern, Northern and Reticulated giraffe, with several subspecies.

All 4 giraffe species and their subspecies live in geographically distinct areas throughout Africa and there are only a total of approximately 117,000 giraffe remaining in the wild.

Reticulated Giraffe

The Reticulated Giraffe, also known as Somali Giraffe, makes it is easy to see where it gets its name. Its rich orange-brown patches are clearly defined by a network of striking white lines, which continue the entire length of their legs.

Reticulated Giraffe

They have a relatively limited distribution across northern and northeastern Kenya, and small restricted populations most likely persist in southern Somalia and southern Ethiopia. Reticulated giraffe were added to the IUCN Red List and listed as Endangered in 2018.

somali giraffe

In recent years, however, numbers across northern Kenya appear to be increasing with improved conservation measures.

Masai Giraffe

The Masai giraffe is often noticeably darker than other species. Its patches are large, dark brown and distinctively vine leaf-shaped with jagged edges. The patches are surrounded by a creamy-brown colour, which continues down their lower legs.

Masai giraffe pattern

Masai giraffe range across central and southern Kenya and throughout Tanzania.

Maasai giraffe

Northern Giraffe

The giraffe we find in Kenya is the Nubian. The Nubian giraffe’s patches are large, rectangular and chestnut-brown. The patches are surrounded by an off-white, creamy colour.

Northern Giraffe pattern

There are no markings on their lower legs, a distinct feature of all Northern giraffes.

a Northern Giraffe

Southern Giraffe

The South African giraffe has star-shaped patches in various shades of brown, surrounded by a light tan colour. Their lower legs are randomly speckled with uneven spots.

Southern Giraffe with Oxpeckers

The birds you see in the photo above are Oxpeckers. These birds spend their daylight hours picking and consuming parasites out of the pelage of their hosts in a win-win relationship known as mutualistic symbiosis. Both species involved gain several advantages from their relationship.

Southern Giraffe eating

Giraffe Got Your Tongue

Giraffe tongues are about 50cm long with a thick outer skin to protect them from the thorns on their favourite trees. The tongue is black, blue or purple at the tip and pink at the base.

It is thought that the front part is a dark colour to protect it from getting sunburnt.

Weak at the Knees

Giraffes can’t support themselves when their knees are bent so they can’t simply kneel to drink. For this reason they spay out their front legs, and dip down.

Fortunately they don’t have to drink every day since they get most of their water from their food.

During this process, a giraffe’s brain needs protection from the sudden changes in blood pressure when it lowers its head to drink. Valves stop the downward flow of blood, and elastic walled vessels dilate and constrict to manage the supply.

giraffe drinking

While drinking they are vulnerable to predators. However with their feet, which are the size of dinner plates at a diameter of 30cm, a well placed kick from an adult giraffe is enough to seriously injure and deter any predator, even a lion.

Giraffe Horns

Both male and female giraffes have incipient horns at birth. These are called ossicones.

Baby giraffe ossicones are not attached to the skull, to avoid injury during birth. They fuse with the skull later in life.

These ossicones are the protrusions on top of their heads – basically mounds of cartilage covered with skin.

Males are bigger and often bald from butting necks. Some people think this behaviour is romantic: a couple involved in a mating ritual. But it’s the males, involved in long necked combat, swinging their necks to hit the one other. It is quite impressive to see.

When the giraffes have each other in a neck lock, they use the resulting leverage to bash their heads and horns against each others necks, back and vulnerable bellies. It’s the long neck way to wear off tufts of hair. Female giraffes still have their hair as you can see below. The first photos is of a female, while the second is of a male.

female giraffe horns
male giraffe horns

Heavy Heart

At around 11kg a giraffe’s heart is the largest of any land mammal.

Both the heart and the circulatory system have to adapt to the height of the giraffe, generating twice the amount of blood pressure of humans to maintain blood flow to the brain since it has further to travel, and has to fight gravity. It pumps 60 litres of blood around its body every minute!

Giving Birth

Giraffes give birth standing up, meaning their calf falls about 2 metres to the ground. Yet they can stand up within an hour afterwards.

standing tall giraffe

Light Sleepers

Giraffe can sleep as little as 30 minutes a day and require no more than 2 hours a day. Sometimes this is done standing up, less vulnerable, as getting up requires a considerable amount of time and effort. They’re a little like me in the mornings.

giraffes walking

They can, and do sometimes lay down, with their heads resting on their back or hindquarters.

These beautiful creatures are a wonder to see and I never cease learning about them in their natural environment.

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