Our place down in the bush is on what used to be a cattle farm. The old farmhouse stands on a rocky ridge overlooking a wide floodplain that must at one stage have been cleared to grow crops. Without the constant attention of tractors and chainsaws, the bush has spent the last few decades slowly reclaiming it. It’s not completely free of management, though. It looks like somebody is turning all the knobthorns trying to invade it into topiaries.
They’re doing a pretty shoddy job, if truth be told.
The younger knobthorns have a pleasing, rounded, bushy shape. As they get bigger, and wider, they take on a cone shape, like scrappy Christmas trees.
Then, they go through a bit of an untidy phase where one of two leggy branches break free right at the top of the cone and make a break for the sky. If they succeed, the knobthorns will then take on an hourglass shape before eventually becoming what are, for the bush, fairly substantial trees.
It’s not somebody. It’s something. Giraffes. Female giraffes. Knobthorns start as bushes. When the giraffes can reach all parts of them, the bushes are rounded. As the bushes begin to spread, the giraffes can’t reach the middle any more. That’s where the cone shape comes in. When the branches in the centre make their break for the sky, the tree starts to spread again, and the giraffes trim the bottom of this new growth into the hourglass shape.
Yup. We’re doing giraffes. Which are famous for one thing, and one thing only. Being tall.
But not tall enough.
Which comes with some issues. When I was a boy, we used to play a rather stupid game. Truth be told, we used to play a lot of stupid games, but right now, you just need to know about the comb game. What you would do was you would take the toothed side of a comb and hit yourself sharply on the back of your hand, leaving a row of angry red marks stitched across your skin. It hurt like hell, but the bravado of it all was part of the fun.
Then the real fun started. You would swing your arm around like Asterix winding up to punch a Roman, five, six, seven times, and then stop to check out your handiwork. Out of the centre of each of the red marks would be flowing a thin but gratifying streak of blood. I did say it was a stupid game.
Stupid games are the best games.
It was all about pressure. The comb didn’t break the skin, but it weakened it enough to let the blood leak through when the pressure from the arm-swinging pushed all our arm blood out to our hands. Giraffes are all about pressure.
Giraffes can be nearly six metres tall. This gives rise to a couple of issues. First of all, there’s the sheer gravitational pressure of the blood at the bottom of their legs. Then there’s the small matter of pumping blood 1,8 metres up the neck to the head. Trickiest of all, the head, in its traditional position at the top of the giraffe, usually has the lowest blood pressure. Until the giraffe decides to take a drink. And the head rather suddenly becomes the lowest part of the giraffe and should, by rights, explode, or at the very least started spraying blood all over the place should anyone have been unkind enough to hit it with a comb.
Clearly, the giraffe has found a way to deal with these issues. First, there’s the special tight skin around the legs to keep all the blood in. Then there’s the 10kg heart to pump the blood all the way up that neck. Finally, there’s a complex system of valves and contracting arteries to stop, rather disappointingly, the whole exploding head thing.
So successful is the giraffe at overcoming these obstacles that scientists are looking to them for inspiration when it comes to designing the G-suits that allow fighter pilots to cope with the gravitational forces involved in turning a fighter jet around at 2000 km/h.
Fighter pilots make everything look cool.
It’s not just the blood that needs to cope with all that pressure. Giraffe bones are incredibly dense and heavy. And while we’re talking about bones, the next time people are throwing around random bits of trivia, you can mention that giraffes only have seven cervical vertebrae, or neck bones. Just like we do. Theirs are a little longer than ours, though. And giraffes are ruminants, which means they chew the cud. Once you get past the mechanics of it all, try to imagine how it feels to do a 1,8 metre vomit several times a day.
Their height makes it quite difficult for ethologists (animal behaviourologists) to fully understand the giraffe’s social structure, because they may well be in constant visual contact with other giraffes that us lowly ground level creatures just can’t see. And they don’t bunch together like most herd animals. They spread out. This makes spotting giraffes quite fun. If you see one, stop for a while and take a look around. More often than not, you’ll soon see another one. And another one. And another one. And even if you don’t, you can be fairly certain that the giraffe does.
We have to assume that a lot of giraffe communication is visual, because being able to see over the top of everything has to come with some advantages, but there is another intriguing possibility.
Giraffes have always been famously silent. They do snort and cough and hiss, but those are sounds that don’t require vocal chords. It was assumed that something about that long neck made having a voice impossible. Then, a few decades ago, it was discovered that elephants were communicating with infrasound; sounds too low for human ears to hear, and people began to explore whether giraffes did the same.
Maybe they were too polite to speak with their mouths full.
It seems that they do. But while checking this all out scientists discovered that giraffes had been making audible sounds all along. Giraffes hum at each other at night. We just never noticed. Which, when you think of how many zoos, circuses and travelling shows have giraffes in them, is pretty lax of us. And no, we don’t know why they do it. It’s probably some sort of contact call, to keep track of each other in the dark. Maybe they’re just content.
I mentioned knobthorns earlier. Knobthorns are a kind of acacia, and giraffes love acacias. There are lots of different types of acacia, and all have thorns, from short, viciously hooked ones to long, straight, needle-sharp ones. Giraffes have specially toughened lips, mouths and tongues to cope with them. And what tongues they have! They’re about 45cm long, and prehensile enough to feel their way between the thorns and pull off the leaves. They’re even black to protect against sunburn.
They have other uses, too.
While we’re talking about eating, I mentioned that the knobthorns were shaped by female giraffes. That’s because the sexes feed differently, with the males feeding higher up than the females. This isn’t just because the males are taller; females will bend down slightly to eat, and males will stretch upward. This is all very sensible, especially when times are tough.
Being so famous for being tall has had a curious effect on how we approach giraffes. For some reason, it has made us think of them as stretched-out versions of Bambi, harmless and cute and ready at the drop of a hat to burst into a duet with their forest friends the bluebird and the bunny. And so you find giraffes in places unexpected places, like small reserves where people hike and ride bikes, or holiday resorts where they wander around among the bungalows where children play and grownups lounge around the pool. People set up raised platforms so you can pay R10 to feed them out of a cup.
It’s bizarre. Because giraffes are freaking massive. Not just tall; huge. They’re about the same size as black rhinos. And you wouldn’t scatter any of those around your local mountain biking trail. BECAUSE THEY’RE TOO BIG. Not giraffes, though. They’re fine. Stretchy Bambis with long-lashed, dreamy eyes.
Communing with nature, South African style.
All of this has a curious outcome. Giraffes keep killing people, and we keep ignoring it. They crack the news, but not the front page, and we all just carry on like taking a weekend stroll with 5.5m tall, 1200 kg lion killer is a normal thing to do.
Yes. Giraffes are bad-asses. They can kill lions. They chop at them with their gigantic, sharp-edged hoofs. Full grown giraffes, like the other giant animals like hippos, rhinos and elephants, are pretty much invulnerable to predators. I say pretty much because there are circumstances in which lions can take down adults. Lions charge at giraffes, hoping that they will stumble and lose their footing as they flee. And giraffes are vulnerable when they bend down to drink. And if a lion ever caught one lying down, I imagine it would be in with a chance. Fun fact; giraffes sleep lying down. And humming.
In keeping with their “how dare you call me stretchy-Bambi” vibe, giraffes regularly eat bones that they find lying around. For a bad-ass reason. Not only do they need the calcium to strengthen those load bearing bone, the males need it because their heads never stop growing. If you see the skull of a young male, it looks kinda like you would expect; eye sockets, nasal cavity, two bony “horns” at the top. The skulls of old males look very different. They seem to be growing a third horn on their foreheads, the skull is much thicker, and is cover in bumps and growths of bone. The whole thing looks like the head of an ogre’s club from a children’s book about giants.
Depending on what your children are into…
This is because they use their skulls like ogres clubs from children’s books about giants. Giraffes fight by trying to beat each other into submission with their heads. This is usually done purely to establish dominance, but they can seriously injure each other by breaking each other’s legs or necks. The whole process actually looks fairly sedate. They stand next to each other and take turns swinging their heads and necks at each other, with long pauses in between. It’s not sedate. Imagine two men fighting with sledgehammers. They won’t be moving blindingly fast or anything, but if anyone lands a blow properly, the consequences will be dire.
Running giraffes look sedate, too. They’re the only animals I know that look like they are moving in slow motion. Again, sedate is the wrong word to use. They’re actually rattling along at 60km/h, which is not bad for an animal weighing in at over a ton.
So that’s that for giraffes then. Now that you know them a little better, you can pop down to the nearest reserve to spend some time with them. Remember to take your bike.