Giraffe Communication: the long and short of it?

Kruger National Park | February 2020

Singita Kruger National Park is very well known for the amazing landscapes of the Lebombo mountains dotted with the locally endemic Lebombo euphorbias, vast open grass plains with herds of zebra and wildebeest, and copious amounts of lion prides whose territories range across the concession, yet there is one creature found here in great densities that is high on most safari goers wishlist: the giraffe.

The Central District of the Kruger, in which the N’wanetsi Concession is located, has the greatest giraffe density, with about seven animals per 10 square kilometres (3.8 square miles), and it is estimated that there are at least 6 000 animals throughout the national park.

Giraffe communicate in various ways, including through sight, scent and through sound. Body language plays an important role, and with exceptional eyesight, giraffe can communicate to each other through various body postures and movements. Males will for example advertise their dominance by walking up to lower ranking males with an erect posture with the head held high. The sub-ordinates will discreetly move out of the path of the more dominant male. Smell also plays an import role, and males will often urine-test females to see if they are in oestrus. With regards to audible communication, there is a common misconception that giraffes are mute, but in reality, these normally silent creatures are capable of making sounds. Calves can bleat and make mewing sounds, and cows looking for lost calves can make bellowing noises. Bulls that are courting females may even emit a raucous cough to attract the female’s attention, and when distressed, all giraffe can give alarm snorts, snore and hiss, but to hear any of these sounds can be very rare.

What is even more fascinating is that recent scientific studies suggest that giraffe, just like elephants actually communicate in low frequency sounds of around 92 hertz, which is way below the frequencies audible to man. A distinct feature of low frequency sounds is that it can travel over longer distances than high pitched sounds. It is thought that herd members can communicate with and warn members several miles away. This might be another reason why giraffe can be seen quite spread out – they might actually still be in ‘talking range’ with each other, and scientists also suggests that the low frequency humming sounds are used to communicate with each other especially during the night when visibility deteriorates.

It will be interesting to see if scientists could one day decode their language.