giraffe, African ruminant mammal, genus Giraffa, living in open savanna S of the Sahara. Giraffes have historically been considered to be one species, G. camelopardalis, with a number of subspecies, but DNA study now suggests that there are in fact four giraffe species, the southern giraffe, the Masai giraffe, the reticulated giraffe, and the northern giraffe, and that the southern and northern giraffes have subspecies. The tallest of animals, giraffes browse in treetops at heights inaccessible to other leaf-eaters. A male may be 18 ft (5.5 m) from hoof to crown. The neck, which is up to 7 ft (2.1 m) long, has only seven vertebrae, the usual number in mammals, but each is very elongated. The legs are also long and end in large hooves; the body is relatively short. The short hornlike ossicones are formed of ossified cartilage and covered with skin and hair. Giraffes have large, sandy to chestnut, angular spots closely spaced on a lighter background. They feed chiefly on leaves of acacia and mimosa, using their extensible tongues and mobile lips to secure food. Giraffes travel in small herds whose membership typically readily changes; females can form long-lasting relationship with each other. They can outrun most of their enemies and have been known to kill lions with a kick. They are most vulnerable when spreading their forelegs and lowering their heads to drink; however, they can do without water for long intervals. They are among the very few mammals that cannot swim at all. Females bear a single calf, which is about 6 ft (180 cm) tall at birth. The only other member of the giraffe family is the okapi. Giraffes are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Artiodactyla, family Giraffidae.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2023, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Vertebrate Zoology