They Have Sky-High Blood Pressure, and Other Fascinating Facts About Giraffes

Giraffes, the elegant long-necked giants of the animal kingdom, are found munching the leaves on tall trees throughout Africa. However, there used to be a lot more of them. Their population has dropped an estimated 40% over the past 30 years, down to just under 100,000.

They’re split into four species: the Masai giraffe, the northern giraffe, the reticulated giraffe, and the southern giraffe. From there, it’s generally agreed upon that there are a total of nine subspecies, most of which are listed on the IUCN Red List as either vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. Read on to learn about these majestic creatures and why they’re at risk.

They’re the Tallest Land Animal

Side profile of giraffe standing in front of grassland

When your neck alone is the length of a large man, it’s not surprising that you’d knock all the other giants out of the tallest animal competition. Giraffes are the tallest land animals, growing up to 18 feet. They’re already giant from birth, too, standing at about 6 feet fresh out of the womb. This extra height makes their food competition a bit less severe, since they tower over the smaller herbivores and can get their pick of the leaves on the higher branches.

Their Heart Works Hard to Get Blood All the Way Up Their Necks

The heart’s job is to pump blood throughout the body, and when that pathway involves a 6 foot long neck, it needs to be a pretty impressive organ. Fortunately, a giraffe heart is really impressive. It weighs up to 25 pounds and has a thicker muscle on its left ventricle to get the job done. Giraffes also have sky high blood pressure to further help pump that blood. Fortunately, this doesn’t give them the health difficulties such high numbers give humans.

Who Needs Sleep? Not Giraffes

Closeup of giraffe looking in camera

With such a long neck, you’d think sleep would provide way too many opportunities to wake up with stiffness. Giraffes don’t have to worry about that, though: They barely sleep. They’ll have very brief naps throughout the day, often while standing up, but there are no marathon snooze sessions for these party animals.

They Have Natural Sunscreen on Their Tongues

When you spend hours a day browsing for food high among the treetops, you open yourself up to a lot of sun exposure. Scientists believe that might be why giraffes have dark purple tongues. The extra pigment may help provide a natural sunscreen, guarding the tongue from burns. That’s helpful. Nothing like burning your tongue while eating.

They Don’t Need Any Water Reminders

Giraffe bending down to drink water

Getting into position to drink water at ground level could understandably be pretty awkward with the giraffe’s proportions, so it’s a good thing they don’t need to drink much. Giraffes may go days without drinking water, as their diet tends to provide most of the hydration they need. This can spare them from the vulnerable position needed to drink, which involves spreading their legs out and lowering their necks to reach the water.

They Have a Favorite Food, and It’s Covered in Thorns

Giraffes eat nearly 100 different types of plants, but they have one favorite treat: leaves and shoots from acacia trees. These plants are a bit prickly, though, covered in thorns. The giraffe’s nimble tongue and lips are able to avoid them for the most part. However, if they do happen to chow down on one, they have thick spit that can coat the thorns before they swallow.

They Have a Rough Introduction to Life

Mother giraffe and baby giraffe

Being welcomed into the world is probably traumatic for most babies, but giraffes have an especially rough time of it. Giraffe mothers give birth standing up, which means their babies fall up to 6 feet to the ground when they emerge. This kind of harsh initiation may help them with the grit they need to already be standing and walking an hour later, which most calves are.

They Can Make Decisions Based on Statistical Information

The giraffe’s brain, located all the way up that long neck, isn’t all that big, but that doesn’t mean it’s not firing on all cylinders. A 2023 study published in Scientific Reports found that the animals can make decisions using statistical reasoning, which had only been a feature found in primates and birds. The researchers learned this through a test with one of a group of giraffes’ favorite treats, carrots, and a food they’re not overly fond of, zucchini. The team used transparent containers with differing amounts of both, and, in three different experiments repeated multiple times, the giraffes all made container choices that put them at a higher likelihood of getting that highly-desired carrot. The researchers say this suggests they were using statistical information to make their food choices.

They Have Complex Social Structures

Older and younger giraffe eating

Elephants have long been known to have a complex social structure, and recent research suggests giraffes aren’t all that different in this regard. A 2021 study that reviewed more than 400 papers on giraffe behavior and social organization showed that giraffes demonstrate many of the same behaviors as animals known to live within complex cooperative social systems and matriarchal societies. The behaviors typical of these types of animals include stable female groups, childrearing support from other females within the group, and females outside of reproductive age playing an important role.

The research showed that giraffes live about 30% of their lives past reproductive age, which suggests that, much like elephants, giraffe “grandmothers” help ensure the survival of a herd. The team said they hoped the findings show people that giraffes are intelligent beings that have evolved such structures to survive in a tough, predator-filled environment.

They Face Threats

Giraffe stares at camera at sunset

Though they don’t have to share those tree-top and thorny leaves with too many other animals, livestock still pose a risk to their survival, with overgrazing changing their habitat. Habitat degradation and loss stemming from agriculture – and other human activities – are big threats for giraffes. Poaching is still a risk, as well. Wars in the countries in which they live have also contributed to declining populations, and climate change’s weather pattern changes, particularly with rainfall, don’t bode well for them, either.

Ensuring their habitat is protected, and that conservation initiatives keep them in mind, is essential for the continued survival of giraffes, especially the subspecies at the most risk. We’re teaming up with partners dedicated to this work. If you’d like to join in, click below!

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