How much do you know about Africa’s longnecks? Now is your chance to get up to speed in celebration of World Giraffe Day on 21 June.

They are the world’s tallest mammals, have exceptionally long tongues, and were once believed to be a fusion between a camel and leopard. Giraffes are majestic animals that deserve our respect and protection. For World Giraffe Day on 21 June, find out more about our continent’s towering herbivores with these 10 interesting facts.

#1: Sweet dreams

When tired, giraffes will lie down to sleep or rest. At night, they will doze off into a deep sleep, but only for short periods of time. But why do giraffes never lie down flat, with their heads resting on the ground? During rumination [chewing the cud], the contents of their stomachs are forced into the mouth, and when lying down in a complete flat position, this content could be ingested into the lungs causing suffocation.

Giraffe-Mariska Nortje-min

Picture by Mariska Nortje

#2: Longneck magic

Their necks might be a lot longer than those of other animals, but longer does not necessarily mean more bones… Like most mammals, they also have just seven bones in their neck. Thing is that these bones are a lot longer than the rest of the animal’s vertebrae. What a wild illusion!

#3: Ouch!

We all know that giraffes love to feed on thorn trees, but how do they manage to separate leaves from thorns, or do they actually eat those hazardous spikes? Nope. Giraffes avoid bigger thorns, spitting them out when their long tongues (up to 45cm) get too opportunistic. The giraffe is, in fact, masterfully built to feast on thorny trees: their inner lips and tongue are covered with horny papillae, thick saliva aids against pricking, and a tough upper palate ensures further protection.

Giraffe-Samuel Cox-min

Picture by Samuel Cox

#4: Spot the track

The front track of a giraffe’s foot measures 5mm more than the hind foot at 190mm. Its front track is also broad and rectangular, and the width is almost constant over the track’s length. When trying to identify a giraffe track, look for a smoothly textured track (the hooves are completely flat underneath), and a hind track that is more pointed on the leading edge.

#5: A love for bones

Ever heard of osteophagia? This behaviour occurs when giraffes, like many other herbivores, crave certain minerals such as phosphorus and calcium that may be lacking in their diets. They subsequently resort to chewing on bones. Guess that’s what one calls making the most of others’ leftovers…

Giraffe-Dee Roelofsz-Kgalagadi-min

Picture by Dee Roelofsz

#6: On the downside

Giraffes might be able to run at speeds of 56km/h and step over barriers as high as 1,4m, but did you know that jumping is not one of these mammals’ strengths? Another disadvantage is grooming, purely because of their long and awkward build. This makes giraffes a popular host for birds such as oxpeckers in search of ticks.

#7: What a blow!

Ever witnessed the social interaction between giraffes called necking? This is the term used to describe their behaviour of striking each other with their neck and head. And when two young adult males give it a go, things can get quite intense, each blow inflicting a powerful hit to the opponent’s body. Quite believable when considering that a mature bull’s head weighs more that 30kg and the top of its skull is 10cm thick.

Giraffe-Kirsten Frost-min

Picture by Kirsten Frost

#8: Fancy a drink?

For these animals, it’s no easy task to have a sip of water. First, the giraffe has to splay its front legs, bending the legs comes second, and only then can the animal lower its head. Quite the exercise. Because giraffes are especially vulnerable to attacks from predators in this position, they mostly drink during daylight.

#9: No dizzy spells

Try sitting on a chair with your head between your legs and remain in this position for a few seconds. Now, quickly raise your head… Dizzy much? Giraffes have a nifty blood vessel system found in the neck that protects the brain against sudden changes in blood pressure when the animal lowers and raises its head.

Giraffe-Adri Botma-min

Picture by Adri Botma

#10: Camel or leopard?

But why the genus name camelopardalis? It’s said that in ancient times, Romans and Greeks believed the giraffe was a mix between a camel and leopard. Well, considering the species’ looks, you can see what they were getting at!

Sources: Beat About the Bush, Mammals and Birds. Trevor Carnaby. 2013. Jacana Media; Tracker Manuel. Alex van den Heever, Renias Mhlongo, Karel Benadie. 2017, Struik Nature; Wild Ways. Peter Apps. 2014. Struik Nature.