Ruminating on ruminants…that was a large part of tonight’s lecture, and this was timely because our baby Giraffe, Maggie, will be introduced to the world tomorrow. Tonight we get the inside story.
Giraffes are hoofstock, a category that also includes our Zebra, Camels, Elands, Warthogs, Elk and Bison all of which are Ungulates (literally translated as “hoofed animals”) and some of which are Ruminants. Amy Phelps. their Keeper, came to class to explain.
What is a hoof? Surprisingly, it is like a shoe that fits over the animals’ toe bones. Think of it as a ballerina’s toe shoe. Hoofed animals actually walk on the tips of their toes, but we don’t see that because of their hooves.
Hooves are made of the same material as horns—keratin—which is a fibrous protein also found in our hair and nails. It’s pretty tough, but no match for rocky trails and paved roads, so that’s why Horses get horseshoes: the extra soles help their built-in shoes wear better.
Animals with hooves are divided into two categories: those with an odd number of toes (Zebras, Horses, Rhinos and Tapirs) and those with an even number (everyone else including Goats and Sheep).
Even-toed hoofstock feast on branches and leaves and ruminate— chew their cud. That’s why we call cows, goats, camels, giraffes and others like them ruminants.
What is a cud? It’s basically undigested food that keeps coming up for more chewing until it can finally be digested and go the way of most food. Since we don’t eat such fibrous food, we don’t have a cud to chew, though if we started eating branches, we’d wish we did!
This cud-chewing process has another advantage: it lets herd animals eat a lot of food when they’re on the run and then digest it later when they have time to stand around and rechew it. It also squeezes out every single drop of water in the food. Judging by their contented look when they are doing this, I’d say its about as pleasureable for them as gum-chewing is to some humans.
Our 8-Giraffe herd is here for life and they greatly enjoy every new birth that adds to their number. Our little Maggie will eventually go to another AZA-accredited Zoo so she can carry on her very rare Reticulated Giraffe genes. If she stayed here, there would be a danger of inbreeding which is very bad for all species. We will love getting to know her while we have her.
On our African Savannah we boast the largest (Elephants) and tallest (Girafffes) mammals on earth. Our largest male Giraffe touches the treetops at nearly 20 feet. Females get to about 14 feet tall and give birth standing up, so when Maggie made her entrance, she had to drop nearly six feet to the ground— it sounds harsh but the jolt triggers the baby to start breathing. She picked herself right up and staggered around to find her mom and breakfast.
Hoofed animals are independent from the get-go so if the herd has to move, they can too. We saw how her dad and mom both kept her from lying down too long at any one time. They’d nudge her, and the dad would even kick her, to get her back on her feet. Staying awake is a survival skill on the Veldt and Giraffes rarely sleep more than a few minutes at a time. When it’s time to rest and sleep, they will like down, though.
Despite their very long necks, Giraffes have the same number of cervical (neck) vertebra that we do: seven. The difference is theirs are ball-and-socket joints so they can swivel their necks nearly in a circle. Don’t try this at home! Male Giraffes spar with each other by slamming their necks and heads together…one more thing to avoid at home.
Valves in their necks keep blood from rushing to their heads when they make the long trip from tree top to grass. Without these, Giraffes would surely faint everytime they bent over.
With their long necks, Giraffes can see for a mile or more and act as lookouts for everyone around them. Since the males are taller, they eat the top branches of trees and the females eat the middle tier. The shorter Antelope, Elands and other hoofstock get the lower branches and shrubs. It’s all organized by height so everyone gets fed.
Giraffe heads are topped with horns, called ossicones that start out as soft cartilage flattened to their heads and then over the first few weeks gradually “pop up” and harden into bone. Males use these as part of their sparring and fighting, so usually the tops are bald from wear and it’s one way you can tell the guys from the gals on our veldt.
Prehensile tongues come in handy for grabbing those branches and they even eat thorns. Their tongues can be 20inches long, so they find their way into birds nests, too.
When Maggie was first let into our Veldt enclosure, Amy kept back the Elands who share that space, because she was worried they might accidentally hurt our little gal with their long horns. A couple of days of cautious introduction went by and before you knew it, Maggie was chasing them, trying to play with them and leaving no doubt that Giraffes rule the hoofstock on the veldt.
Sadly, African Lions prefer to dine on large male Giraffes more than just about anything, so Giraffes are prey for them, particularly when they are drinking at watering holes. And their land is being broken up into cattle ranches leaving them less room to roam: even a small Giraffe herd needs about 45 acres for feeding.
To add to Giraffic Woes, there seems to be a market for Giraffe fur to make little tourist bracelets, so add poaching to their problems and you see why the Giraffe population is rapidly dwindling.
Putting Poachers Out of Business
Next time you go to Africa, please do not buy a Giraffe-hair bracelet—or anything else made from the bodies of wild animals. Did I say Africa? I meant anywhere! Instead, help the locals by buying crafts that don’t rely on killing animals.
Amy’s lecture on of the rest of our African plains animals was equally fascinating but would take too much time to tell you about tonight and I still have my homework to do. We’re going to visit all of them on Saturday, so I’ll fill you in then.