by Hannah Schardt
When you are the tallest animal around, your life is pretty much all about being tall. What you eat, how you drink, the way you move, even how you fight: It's all thanks to your height. Just ask the giraffe, the tallest land animal on Earth. From hooves to ears, it's as tall as a two-story building! Its neck alone can be as long as an adult human is tall. But for the life a giraffe leads, tall is the best way to be.
WHOLE LOTTA LEAVES
When you are as tall as a tree, it makes sense that your body is built for eating leaves. And that's what giraffes do—for up to 20 hours a day! Giraffes live in Africa's savannas, or grasslands, where the weather is often very dry. They roam around, nibbling the leaves and tender shoots of thorny acacia (uh-KAY-shuh) trees. They sometimes stop to sip from waterholes, but they get most of the water they need from the leaves they eat.
Giraffes are well suited to an acacia diet, and not just because they are tall enough to reach the treetops. Their flexible lips and super-long tongues are able to pick around the acacia's sharp thorns. Also, giraffes have thick, slimy spit. Their spit coats any thorns they may swallow by mistake, and that keeps the sharp points from poking the giraffe's stomach. So to you, a prickly acacia tree may look like a plant to avoid. But to a giraffe, it looks like lunch.
Mealtime doesn't end when the giraffe swallows. That's because its stomach can't break down the tough plants it eats right away. So, like a cow, the giraffe coughs its food back up in a ball called cud. Then it chews and swallows the cud again.
ON THE MOVE
Even though giraffes spend most of their time grazing, sometimes they need to run—fast—to escape a lion or other threat. A giraffe can run more than 35 miles an hour. That's probably faster than the speed limit in your neighborhood!
Just a few hours after a baby giraffe is born, it can run. But it spends most of its first few weeks hiding under Mom's long legs. Many animals would love to catch a giraffe calf for dinner. So when a mother giraffe sees an approaching lion or hyena, she stands protectively over her baby. If the predator gets too close, Mom fends it off with a powerful kick.
Male giraffes get tough, too—usually with other males. When two males both want to be "top giraffe" they face off in a battle known as "necking." They stand facing each other and lean in, pushing their necks together. The one that stays more upright is the winner. If a fight gets really serious, the battling giraffes may stand a few feet apart and swing their necks, trying to knock each other off balance with the horn-like bumps on their heads. Ouch!
It may sound hard to believe: an animal with a neck that can be used as a weapon, a tongue that can slurp right through thorns, and legs that carry it as fast as a car. But when it comes to the giraffe, this tall tale is 100 percent true!
"A Tall Tale" appeared in the December/January 2014 issue of Ranger Rick magazine.
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