Giraffes are the tallest land animals in the world, with long necks of up to 1.8 meters, and have appropriately size tongues to match. A giraffe’s tongue is a wonderful piece of mother nature’s engineering, and a fascinating thing for many reasons.
Here are some fun facts about giraffes tongues – click on a fact or scroll for more in-depth info:
How the giraffe diet impacts their tongues
The shape, size, and even colour of a giraffe’s tongue have evolved over time to perfectly adapt to their favourite food.
The giraffe diet of choice is leaves from the acacia tree, a tall tree that features branches interspersed with leaves and long thorns.
The giraffe’s long tongue has the ability to grasp, meaning giraffes are able to use their tongue to strip an acacia tree of leaves while dodging the many sharp thorns.
Giraffes need to eat around about 30kg of acacia leaves each day. As giraffes take just a few leaves each bite to avoid the many thorns on the branches, they can spend up to 12 hours each day feeding.
So why do giraffes specialize in acacia leaves? Because of the acacia’s thorns, many African animals are unable to enjoy acacia leaves as part of their regular diet, and those that do are unable to reach the highest, juiciest leaves. The giraffe’s height and long tongue give them access to these leaves. Quite simply, giraffes have virtually no competition for this food source.
Acacia leaves have also been shown to be an important source of water for giraffes. Their high moisture content provides giraffes with much of their daily water requirement, meaning they can reduce the amount they have to drink from lakes, rivers, or watering holes. Because of their build, giraffes are at their most vulnerable to predators when drinking, as they have to spread their legs wide and lower their heads all the way to the ground.
How long is a giraffe’s tongue?… Very long!
Adult giraffe tongue length is around half a meter long, usually between 45 cm and 55 cm. The extraordinary length of their tongue helps them both get extra reach for those super-high acacia leaves, and dexterously wrap their tongues around branches to strip leaves whilst avoiding the thorns.
A prehensile tongue – like a monkey’s prehensile tail – refers to the owner’s ability to grasp things with it, and have fine-tuned muscular control over it. For giraffes, having a prehensile tongue allows them to grasp and pull leaves into their mouths, almost like a hand, or an elephant’s trunk.
Along with their prehensile tongues, giraffes also have prehensile lips that work together with the tongue to assist in stripping leaves from trees and navigating around any thorns.
They’re a weird colour
Depending on the light, a giraffe tongue colour can look anything from black to grey to purple. If you look closely at a protruding giraffe tongue you may notice that only the end 20 cm or so are this dark colour, and the rest of it is actually a more expected pinkish colour.
The dark colour of a giraffes tongue is due to a density of melanin colour pigments, and while there’s no scientifically proven reason for this strange tongue colouring, many believe that the melanin provides extra UV protection to prevent sunburn. This theory makes sense, given giraffes can feed for 12 hours each day with their tongues sticking out and exposed to the sun.
They have added protection
We’ve discussed how the length and dexterity of giraffes’ tongues help them avoid the thorns when feeding on acacia trees. If giraffes do get a thorn inside their mouth, then their tongue has evolved to give them an additional level of protection.
Along with their protective leathery lips and mouths, giraffes secrete a sticky, thick saliva that coats any thorns that makes it past their lips. If the tongue gets cut, this special saliva has antiseptic properties to help it heal quickly without getting infected.
See why giraffe tongues are so weird:
And here are a couple of our favourite pictures of giraffe tongues in action!
Have you learned all you need about the long, colorful – and completely unique – tongues of the giraffe? Here’s some more interesting info on natures’ tallest animals:
Giraffe behaviour & lifestyle
When out on safari, keep a lookout for giraffes arranged in groups of calves watched over by one or two mothers. These calving pools are often colloquially referred to as giraffe creches and they allow the mothers to feed elsewhere while a trusted individual keeps a lookout for danger.
For the most part, giraffe herds consist of either related females and their offspring or groups of unrelated adult bachelors. However, the different groups may sometimes come together and gather in larger herds.
Giraffe hierarchies are established by the males through an activity known as “necking” in which two giraffes use their long necks as a weapon during fights, swinging and hitting each other. The winning male is dominant and has better access to the fertile females for reproduction. However, when it comes to raising the young, that is solely in the sphere of female giraffes.
Female giraffes give birth to their young standing up. The calf drops to the ground, which severs the umbilical cord. After its mother has groomed and cleaned the newborn, the calf will slowly attempt to stand up, but within a few hours it is able to run around.
Fun facts about giraffes
- Giraffes spend most of their lives standing up, even giving birth standing up. The calves fall up to 2 meters to the floor at birth as their introduction to the world.
- Giraffes don’t need much sleep to function, typically getting less than two hours each day!
- Giraffes can run at speeds of up to 56 kilometers per hour over short distances!
- Like human fingerprints, each giraffe’s spot pattern is completely unique, and no two are the same.
What do you think – any facts about nature’s weirdest tongues surprise you? Let us know in the comments section below!