WHAT DO YOU GET WHEN YOU CROSS A LEOPARD WITH A CAMEL? A GIRAFFE!

The answer is a camelopardalis; Giraffa camelopardalis, named because it has a head like a camel and spots like a leopard.

The name “giraffe” has its earliest known origins in the Arabic word الزرافة al-zirāfah, perhaps from an African name. There were several Middle Eastern spellings such as jarraf, ziraph, and gerfauntz. The Italian form giraffa arose in the 1590’s from Arabic. It appears in English from the 16th century through the French girafe. The species name G.camelopardalis (camelopard) is derived from its Latin name, where it was described as having characteristics of both a camel and a leopard.

In Zulu, giraffe are given the name ‘inDlulamithi’ which literally means ‘taller than trees’. No reference to camels for obvious reasons.

In Afrikaans the word ‘horse’ got involved – Camel horse is the direct translation – perhaps ‘horse’ got involved because of its gait?


The modern day giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), an even toed ungulate (the same as cattle, camels, sheep, goats and even hippopotamus – but not horses), is the world’s tallest animal and largest ruminant (animals that partly digest their food and then regurgitate it to chew as ‘cud’).

The list of nine recognised subspecies is debatable but here they are. Only eighty thousand left on our continent – across all sub-species – some are really vulnerable at the moment taking into consideration that there were over 140 000 in 1999 but the giraffe remains unlisted on CITES.


Giraffa camelopardalis angolensis – Angolan giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis antiquorum – Kordofan giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis – Nubian giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis giraffa – South African giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis peralta – West African giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata – Reticulated giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi – Rothschild’s giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis thornicrofti – Thornicroft’s giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi – Masai giraffe


We don’t worry too much about identifying the giraffe by its spots or camel-like facial features. We know the giraffe as the tallest land mammal in the world. Difficult to confuse it with a leopard or a camel because of its longer neck!


I thought I’d list a few anatomical facts about a giraffe (along with current scientific theory) that you may ponder while you enjoy your favourite mammal next time you’re in the bush.


Both sexes of giraffe have horns, formed from ossified cartilage and covered by skin – known as ossicones. You’ll be aware that you can sex a giraffe by the differences in these horns – hair tufts and size but these horns can also indicate age, particularly in the males. The presence and extent of calcium deposits or bumps and the extent of the medial horn on the anterior of the skull will assist you to ‘age’ a giraffe in the last ten years of its roughly 30 year lifespan.


During its early years – take the following age issues into consideration while watching a giraffe next time around.


If a young giraffe is nursing from its mother it’ll be less than 14 months old. If the horns are still flattened – it is less than a week old. Young giraffes need to get as tall as possible as fast as possible within the first 14 months in order to enjoy the status of being able to browse without competition.

Giraffes are NOT mute! They make a number of sounds (not very often) but I have often heard loud coughs from amorous bulls, bleats and mewing sounds from calves, and various snorts, grunts and hissing from adults.


They also communicate through infrasound. Next time you see a giraffe lower its chin, and quickly raise it you’ll know its talking to another giraffe over distance.


Giraffes have good colour vision, good eyesight and along with their height – they are extremely adept at staying in touch with one another. They don’t really have tight social structures and certainly no hierarchical issues within the herd.


When you look at the height, size and colouration of a fully developed bull giraffe many evolutionary theories will kick in, and many physical adaptations will have had to be made in order for this beast to exist.


Here are some theories worth pondering:

The giraffes coat is made up of brown blotches or patches separated by lighter hair. Camouflaged in dappled sunlight for sure but the blotches also serve as significant thermal windows as they are the site of large blood vessels and sweat glands.


The fur of a giraffe is full of aromatic chemicals. Some say these smells are associate with ‘chemical defence’ some say they have a sexual function but the term, “stink bull,” is quite accurate when you’re up close and personal with a fully grown bull giraffe.


Think about spending a large part of your day rubbing up and down the branches of an acacia tree full of ants, bugs and other nasty stinging insects – you’d also want some sort of bug-spray on your body.

Talking about rubbing up and down the acacias – have you thought about the fact that giraffes are great pollinators of acacias in the bush. In fact – think about the whole phylogeny. Acacias grow dormant flowers for giraffes to eat, and produce reproductive flowers at about the same height that the giraffe’s fur collects the pollen from the last tree.


What about circulating blood around this 5 meter tall land giant?


The giraffes heart, and circulatory system has to create substantial pressure to get blood up to the brain, and then around the body, round the lower legs some 20 feet away from the brain and back again.


This is complicated by the fact that the giraffe lowers its 2.5 meter neck to drink. Most of us would simply fall over with all that blood rushing to our heads. A little network of capillary vessels responsible for this complex pressure regulation system called rete mirabile in the upper neck sorts this problem out. A giraffe also has about seven valves in the jugular veins to get the blood out of the head and back down the body.


This, along with the blood vessels in the lower legs and a tightly wrapped sheath of skin over those lower legs keeps the blood from bursting out of the capillary walls but rather keeps a high extra vascular pressure – just like an astronaut or fighter pilots g-force suit does.


By the way, giraffes can jump, and run at about 60Kms per hour over short distances but they can’t really swim.


There is certainly a lot to think about when looking at giraffes. Some collective nouns thrown around are; A ‘journey’ of giraffes or a ‘tower’ of giraffes but I still prefer the old ‘herd’ of giraffes.

Hope you enjoyed my little summary of one of our uniquely favourite animals.

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