From One Tall Blonde to Another

A fascination with giraffes has made this writer an expert on the world's tallest mammal

12-01-2003 // Lynn Sherr

I USED TO THINK I knew everything about giraffes—at least, everything a human could know. Not that I’m a zoologist, or even a biologist. But I am passionate. And after losing my heart to these gorgeous, gentle creatures on my first trip to Africa some 30 years ago, I set out to discover the mystery of their allure. I wanted to understand why they look so aloof but act so friendly; how their stunning stained-glass coats actually function as camouflage; and how in the world they could grow so tall and weigh so much, yet still seem to float across the plains with elegance.

My first encounter with giraffes in the wild was a revelation. I was traveling with a friend, a Kenyan, in Samburu National Park in Kenya’s far north. I was new to the continent and dazzled by everything I’d seen. But as we rounded a bend in the forested area, my jaw dropped and I gasped audibly. There, no more than 20 feet before us, was the largest living thing I’d ever seen: a two-story-tall reticulated giraffe calmly nibbling the leaves of an acacia tree. In the dappled light we had nearly crashed into it—my first lesson in giraffe camouflage—yet her manner was utterly composed. She barely stopped eating to acknowledge us, but that one look was all I needed. I was hooked.

A number of other safaris fed my obsession. I saw giraffes’ endlessly long eyelashes, their unlikely purple tongues. And when I came home, I told everyone who would listen about these miraculous beings. Most of my friends nodded politely and said something like, "That’s nice, dear." But one friend looked at me very wisely, nodded and said, "Of course. Of course. Tall blondes."

Of course. I identified with giraffes, as only someone who reached 5’8" as a 13-year-old could. I understood the mixed blessing of being taller than most of the crowd, and I fully appreciated the giraffe’s gawky vulnerability when it bends down to get a drink. It’s the way I feel every time I get out of the back seat of a car wearing high heels. As for the animal’s glamour, well, that remained my dream.

So I got to work. And after years of research, I published a book about giraffes, which gave me a chance to proclaim their many marvels. Giraffes are our tallest mammals (up to 20 feet high), but their necks have the same number of vertebrae as our own (seven). Their legs land in cloven hooves the size of dinner plates, and the animals weigh up to a ton and a half. But all that mass is so cleverly suspended that when a giraffe gallops (up to 35 mph), it glides across the most uneven terrain like a fish through water. It has an enviable circulatory system, with valves and elastic walls that keep blood from pooling in its ankles or rushing from its head. And it’s all bound together beneath a hide so thick and strong, that one scientist called it an "antigravity suit" and studied the giraffe for hints to help astronauts.

I was especially intrigued with the giraffe’s history: a two-million-year-old species whose even taller ancestors once roamed Europe and Asia. Some of their ancient bones now reside in storage drawers at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, where I got a mind- boggling illustration of the power of size. My guide pulled out a long white bone the length of my arm and said it was the metatarsal of a long-extinct giraffe; ours (located where the foot meets the toe) are just a few inches long.

This is all by way of saying that I was feeling very knowledgeable when I turned my book into a documentary for PBS’s Nature. But that’s when I learned what I didn’t know. While writing the script, I came across a woman who has shattered one of our biggest myths about giraffes—the one that says they are mute. Startling new evidence proves they are not.

Liz von Muggenthaler, a bioacoustical researcher, has graphic proof that giraffes may actually "talk" to each other. "We believe that giraffes are forcing large columns of air out their long, long trachea and out a small opening, which is actually their larynx," she told me. It’s not a sound we humans can hear unaided, since it’s at a range beneath our own hearing called infrasound. But von Muggenthaler says that as the air passes through the larynx, it might sound "like a great burst of air: PSSH."

Von Muggenthaler is careful not to say that giraffes have a language—she simply doesn’t know—but she demonstrated her discovery for me at Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, South Carolina. With her assistant outside the pen, and Liz inside, they separated the herd, then watched and recorded their activities. Right on schedule, the adult female inside started to stretch her neck—"head-tossing" is von Muggenthaler’s term—at which point the giraffes outside actually stopped what they were doing and perked up their ears. The two humans communicated by walkie-talkie to confirm what was happening. And sure enough, head-tossing, which is how giraffes force air to the larynx, inside was followed by an immediate reaction outside, where giraffes stopped and perked up their ears. "Yeah, there’s some listening going on," the assistant radioed back.

It is an intriguing discovery, not only because it broadens our knowledge of these remarkable creatures—and dispels an old notion—but because it suggests that these fabulous animals might be harboring other secrets as well. Which doesn’t surprise me one bit. After all, I think they are the most politically correct of all the animals: They are vegetarians, pacifists that never attack except under threat, and they do not discriminate against other giraffes on the basis of their skin patterns—of which there are many.

Scientists have identified at least nine different giraffe subspecies, mostly identifiable by the designs on their coats. These range from golden spots to brown blotches, from those with dots down to their hooves to some with pure white socks. To me, the superstars are the first I ever encountered: reticulated giraffes, with a rich network of deep chestnut outlined by fine white lines. You can still find them at Samburu in northern Kenya, and you can find other varieties in East Africa, South Africa and parts of North Africa. Today, there are an estimated 95,000 giraffes in the wild, far fewer than in the teeming herds before Africa was discovered by Europeans but not so dire as to put them on any endangered species list. Not yet. But there are the occasional poachers, and there is a constant threat from development. At least one subspecies (in Niger) is in serious trouble. Lions, leopards and hyenas are higher on the food chain and regularly try to attack newborns or the feeble. But one swift kick from a giraffe can decapitate a lion, and the animals quickly learn to exercise caution. The biggest danger to giraffes comes from us.

Yet humans may ultimately be their saviors. Giraffes do breed well in captivity. We were lucky enough to film a live giraffe birth at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs for the documentary—a mesmerizing event. After a very brief coupling, pregnancy lasts 15 months, one of the longest in the animal world. The birth itself is a miracle of gravity and true grit. As mom paces, the baby appears—feet first—then drops six feet to the ground, breaking the umbilical cord in an abrupt welcome to the world. Within minutes, mom starts licking the new creation, then starts nudging the baby with her hooves to stand up. In the wild, the scent of a newborn attracts predators, and babies are up on their feet within 45 minutes. Our zoo giraffe, facing no such danger, drew on her genetic memory to do the same, a slimy, wobbly baby beast carrying on the tradition with bravado. The next day, I got to hold her during the neonatal exam, and I can report that her skin was like a thick carpet, her eyelashes curled around my pinkie, and she smelled like a dream. By the way, at barely 24 hours old, she was six feet tall.

In the wild, she’d be raised in a nursery group hidden in the trees against the heat of the day. That’s a relatively recent discovery. But very little research has been done on giraffe groups as a whole. Preliminary new research by one animal behaviorist indicates that individual giraffes do form specific "friendships." In other words, that aloof manner that enticed me way back when may be just a look. Giraffes are really very sociable beings.

Today, the field is wide open for more research on their mysterious ways. I look forward to all the new disclosures. And I hope that every new fact will make the world recognize anew the treasure buried beneath those spotted skins. Sure, I’m biased—but I can’t imagine a world without tall blondes.

Author of Tall Blondes: A Book About Giraffes, ABC 20/20’s Lynn Sherr recently stopped collecting giraffe paraphernalia after she found it was edging her out of her New York City apartment.


Web Exclusive 
The Smell That Repels—and Attracts

How giraffes communicate with one another is only one facet of new research on the two-story-high creatures.

Noting that older male giraffes are nicknamed stink bulls in South Africa, a biologist at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, set out to find out what it is in giraffe hair that makes them reek. A chemical ecologist whose previous subjects include skunks, deer, antelope and snakes, William Wood discovered 11 chemical compounds in giraffe hair—including two that give human feces its smell. He’s found that most of the rank-smelling chemicals showed antibiotic properties and that some appear to repel ticks and other parasites.

And although we probably wouldn’t consider spraying on a little “eau de giraffe” before a night on the town, it seems that the more malodorous the male, the more desirable he becomes to the opposite sex. The bulls are probably advertising how healthy they are, says Wood.—Heidi Ridgley

 
 
 

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