Always the last to see the sunset

Sabi Sand | February 2018

Giraffe are one of those species that every set of guests would love to see; a safari trip is simply not complete without seeing one of these iconic safari animals. One of the interesting facts about them is that they are not at all territorial; why that is of any importance is because we go through periods where we see a lot of them around and times where we really struggle to see any at all! The fantastic thing is this month we have been really fortunate with the amount of sightings, and have had a number of large journeys moving through the reserve.

What obviously stands out with a giraffe is its unique and interesting build – the long and beautiful neck, legs, tail, tongue and eyelashes. All of these features help them to fill a specialized niche in this ecosystem. The eyelashes and long muzzle are perfectly designed to reach deep into the branches of thorn tree species and protect the eyes and rest of the face from the needle-like thorns. The long and leathery tongue can further the reach of these already impressive animals to feel its way around the prickly trees. They have a massive heart to work against gravity and pump the blood all the way up that long neck. Most famously the neck makes it a species like no other! It is just a fascinating bit of biology, famous for having only seven vertebrae, and an extremely extensive capillary network that tries to slow down the blood before it reaches the brain because of that massive heart.

 

What is being discussed more and more is how such an interesting creature came to be, where for many years it was always thought that they evolved to reach the tops of leaves that no other mammal could, barring an elephant pushing the tree over. This makes a lot of sense, but the most recent studies believe that it is more a case of genetic selection over time. How this happens is giraffe fight for dominance doing something we call necking, basically standing side-on to one another and swinging those heavy heads at the opponent. The physics of this is quite scary, it’s like having a three metre pole and putting a 50 kg weight at the end of it! So what looks like slow motion actually carries amazing forced momentum, somewhere in the region of 2 000-3 000kg per square inch! Why this is so interesting is generally the male with the longest/largest neck will win these bouts, so genetic selection with time is that the necks will just progressively get longer and longer.

 

Maybe this provides a different narrative to why these stunning animals look the way they do!