Excerpts from a Giraffe’s Diary
Age: ~20 minutes. Whoosh! Talk about starting life with a bang! Mother, standing, dropped me on my head from about six feet up! But it got my attention and I did take a deep breath. At any rate, here I am.
I’ll try to stand up and figure out who I am. What do you know? I can stand and even walk a little. I must be about six feet tall because that’s about long Mom’s front legs are, and I come almost to the top of them.
Age: ~2 hours. Since I’m tall enough to breastfeed I took my first drink of milk about an hour ago. Gave me enough strength that I can actually run around and play now.
Oh oh – Mom looks worried. She’s standing over me – is that a lion? He’s looking at me – he’s coming. Wow! Did you see that! Mom dispatched him with one blow from her hoof! She may have killed him! I guess I would make a good meal for him – I already weigh about 150 pounds!
Age: ~1 year. I’m growing up and starting to be able to defend myself. These first couple of years are a bit dangerous – besides lions, I have to watch out for leopards, hyenas, and even some of the bigger wild dogs. And a watering hole is particularly dangerous because I can’t get my head to the water without spreading my front legs to lower the front of my body. Then I’m vulnerable, even to crocodiles! Small wonder fewer than half of us calves make it to full adulthood.
Fortunately I don’t have to go to the watering hole often. My favorite food is acacia, which gives me most of the water I need. Since I’m tall enough to reach food above the levels most other grazing animals, like zebras, I can reach have a nice supply of nutritious food. I can go without a drink of water for a week or two! About the only food competition I’ve got up here are other giraffes and the occasional big elephant. And I’ve noticed that some of the other grazing animals seem to like to graze near us – I guess they think our height lets us see danger coming before they can see it.
I eat about 75 pounds of food each day. Like cattle, we giraffes are ruminants with a four-chambered stomach. We chew sticks and foliage, swallow it, and then bring it back up to re -chew the curd.
I’m also learning more about who I am. I’m a giraffe, a member of the African genus Giraffa, the tallest of all terrestrial mammals. Giraffa, incidentally, means “one who walks fast.” Our scientific name, Giraffa camelopardalis, comes from the Greeks and Romans of old who thought our faces came from camels and our camouflage from leopards so we must be a mix of the two. We’re only in Africa today, although sources like Wikipedia suggest that we began evolving 40 million years ago or so, and had a fairly close ancestor in southern Europe and Asia about 8 million years ago. Now, according to the Kenya Travel people, the nine species of us in Africa total to around 120,000 giraffes.
Age: ~4 years. I’m now a fully grown, mature giraffe. The only predators I’ve got are lions and humans, and I can usually beat off a lion unless he catches me by surprise. Humans want me for my meat, skin, and tail which is about eight feet long and which they use as a flyswatter. Fortunately, I am protected and, for most of my species, not endangered.
About my neck – it has only seven vertebrae, just like any other mammal. Instead of having more vertebrae than you have, mine are just much longer than yours. Most of the growth happened after I was born. My neck can be over 7 feet long and may weigh 550 pounds or so. Try lifting that off the ground! Including the neck, our males, or bulls, can be 18 feet tall, the tallest animal in the world. And I weigh close to 2,000 pounds. Our females, or cows, top out at around 16 feet. So our bulls and cows graze at different levels in the brush.
Of course, that neck gives my heart a problem – the heart has to pump blood all the way up to my brain. As a result, my blood pressure is about twice as high as yours. And I need a way to keep blood from flowing back into my head when I have it down to drink. So my jugular vein contains a series of one way valves to stop that back flow and keep me from blacking out.
And I’ve reached the age when it is time to mate. No problem if you are a cow. You just let the bulls fight it out and take the strongest. Our gestation period is about 15 months, and a cow almost always has only one calf – go back up to the early entries to see the size of that calf. Over her lifetime, a cow will have about 10 calves.
But it is a different story for a bull. We duel with each other to see who is strongest in a process known as necking. And, no, what you humans mean by necking has nothing to do with what we mean by necking. When two bulls are necking they cross necks and try to push the other aside, with the advantage usually going to the bull with the longer neck. These duels aren’t often dangerous.
Age: ~23 years. Well, this is about the end of my diary. I’m nearing the end of my life. Maybe a few more years. Perhaps I should look for a retirement home – you know, a nice zoo. I understand giraffes in captivity live to be around 30. And some of the zoo folks put drinking water up high so we don’t have to bend down so far. And in the finer places, like the San Diego Zoo, they even sometimes offer raw onions! Yummy!