Giraffes: Spotted in the wild

The spotless baby giraffe is unusual—but they all are.

Three giraffes of different heights stand in profile.
Photo: Baz Ratner (Reuters)

A tall drink of water

On July 31, 2023, an unusual giraffe was born at a zoo in Tennessee. The calf has no spots. Born at a perfectly normal 6 ft tall (1.8 m), she is thought to be the only spotless reticulated giraffe on the planet. As rare as this baby is, being unusual is pretty much the norm for giraffes. Clocking in at nearly 20 ft (6 m) in height when full grown, with purple prehensile tongues that can reach 18-20 inches (45-50 cm) in length, and feet as large as dinner plates, giraffes boast science-fiction like proportions.

Giraffes have been the target of trophy hunting since the European colonization of Africa, and big-game hunters who shoot giraffes, along with other large mammals like lions and elephants, have sparked widespread controversy online and on social media. The governments and organizations that sponsor hunting safaris argue that they fund conservation efforts.

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And conservation is an increasing concern. Since 1985, some giraffe populations have decreased by as much as 40 percent, with fewer than 100,000 in existence today. The most stable populations reside in protected national parks and reserves, but at least seven West African countries have lost all of their wild giraffes.

Are conservation efforts in proportion to the challenges giraffes face? Let’s stick our necks out.

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By the digits

68,000: Approximate number of mature, wild giraffes in the world, at last assessment in 2016

60 liters: Volume of blood pumped by a giraffe’s 24-lb (11-kg) heart every minute, the largest heart of any land mammal

16-20: Hours a day a giraffe must eat to support its body

50%: Share of giraffes that survive their first six months of life in the wild

35 miles per hour (56 km per hour): Top speed for a running giraffe

10-15 years: Typical lifespan in the wild

9: Known subspecies

15 months: Length of a giraffe pregnancy, with approximately two-year intervals between births

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Explain it like I’m 5!

Why are wild giraffe populations in decline?

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified giraffes as “vulnerable,” and in August of 2019, new international regulations were enacted to protect giraffes against poaching by limiting the trade of giraffe products, which had previously been unregulated.

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Whether sold legally or by poachers, demand is high. A little more than a decade ago in Tanzania, where giraffes are a national symbol, there was an uptick in herbal medicine practitioners touting giraffe bone marrow and brains as a way to protect against or even cure HIV/AIDS—a wholly false claim that bumped the price of certain bones up to $140 each. Their long swishy tails are also coveted for some traditional dowries. The Center for Biological Diversity reports that between 2006 and 2015, 21,402 giraffe-bone carvings, 3,008 giraffe-skin pieces, and 3,744 giraffe hunting trophies were imported into the US.

While poachers, who have reportedly used the social media accounts of tourists to track wildlife, remain a threat to giraffes, habitat destruction is another serious challenge. Huge swaths of natural giraffe habitat have been used for agriculture and development. These losses have been exacerbated by lengthy droughts, leading desperate giraffes to graze on farmers’ crops, making them pests to communities. As more natural and man-made barriers narrow the paths of traveling giraffes, their choice of mates has been limited as well.

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Over the next decade, Africa’s human population is expected to boom, escalating the rate of land development and likely further endangering giraffes. The past few years have padded giraffe populations with new protections, and some groups, like the giraffes in South Africa, have flourished, but elsewhere on the continent, their numbers could fall even more precipitously.


Quotable

“As a giraffe keeper can tell you, they are a flighty bunch and one kick—accidental or not—will be the end of you!”

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Melissa McCartney, lead hoofstock keeper at the Sacramento Zoo


Pop quiz

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How many bones are in a giraffe’s neck?

A. 7

B. 12

C. 23

D. 35

The answer to the quiz can be found at the bottom of this email, which is much shorter than a giraffe’s neck, we promise.

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Brief history

46 BC: Julius Caesar brings a giraffe—known as a “camelopard”—to Europe for the first time.

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1414: A giraffe is gifted to the Yongle emperor in China from the king of Bengal.

1600: The modern English version of the word “giraffe” appears, derived from the French “girafe.”

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1786: The first scientific paper on giraffes is published.

1826: France’s king receives a giraffe as a diplomatic gift from Egypt, inspiring fashion trends.

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1950s: Dr. G. Raffe becomes the mascot of Toys “R” Us, later to become Geoffrey the Giraffe.

1972: A spotless giraffe named Toshiko is born at Ueno Zoo in Tokyo.

2016: The giraffe genome is sequenced.

2017: Rare white giraffes are spotted in Kenya.

2019: The US Fish and Wildlife Service begins an official review to determine if giraffes should be listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

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2023: A spotless giraffe is born in a zoo in Tennessee.


Fun fact!

Researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Wild Nature Institute are using machine learning to sort through digital photographs of giraffes to identify and track individuals by their uniquely spotted coats.

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Watch this!

Two giraffes fighting, with their necks entwined.
Screenshot: YouTube (Fair Use)
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Giraffe fight

Like pool noodles of pure muscle, giraffes fight with their impressive necks, brandishing them with frightening force. Playing to their assets, giraffes slam and slap their necks together as they attempt to throw each other off balance.

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Take me down this 🦒 hole!

The heart of the matter

A giraffe heart is engineered to battle with gravity: The walls of the left ventricle are incredibly thick, beating at an emphatic three beats per second, pumping blood through the giraffe’s body and up its lengthy neck to its brain. This cardiac engineering specially dilates and constricts to manage the sudden change in blood pressure when a giraffe lowers its head to drink, protecting it from brain damage—and a massive head rush.

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A giraffe’s entire body is designed to keep blood moving. The skin ringing their legs is thick and tight, like a compression sock, built to maintain the pressure necessary for blood to pump back up to the heart against the force of gravity—a design that has been studied by NASA and applied to space and anti-g suits worn by pilots.


Poll 

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What would you name a baby giraffe if you had the opportunity?

  • Geoffrey
  • Sophie
  • Noodle

Chime in via our poll, or send us an email with a better name.


💬 Let’s talk!

In last week’s poll about Tupperware, 60% of you said that your collection size is moderate, while 25% of you have too many mismatched lids and bowls to count. 15% of you have properly Kondo’d your kitchen—props to you!

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🤔 What did you think of today’s email?

💡 What should we obsess over next?


Today’s email was written by Hailey Morey, and edited, updated, and produced by Annaliese Griffin.

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The answer to the quiz is A., 7. Giraffes have the same number of neck bones as humans, theirs are just much, much longer, up to 10 inches (25 cm) each.