How the Giraffe Got Its Neck

May 24, 2016

By Anthony Lydgate

It’s difficult to know what to make of the giraffe. It shuffles like a camel (right legs forward, then left legs) but runs like a rabbit (hind legs forward, then front legs). Its distinctive aroma repulses many ticks but enchants certain people. It bellows, hisses, and moans in the wild, and in captivity it hums in the dark. It naps with its head aloft but sleeps like a swan, with its head on its haunches. Had Aristotle ever seen a giraffe, he might have said that it was the product of an interspecies dalliance at the watering hole, which he thought of as a kind of zoological swingers’ club—a place where “bastard animals are born to heterogeneous pairs.” Centuries of further guesswork failed to clarify the giraffe’s essential nature. Simone Sigoli, a Renaissance traveller, wrote that it had the body of an ostrich, only with fine white wool instead of feathers, and that it ate bread. “It is quite a deformed thing to see,” he concluded. Sigoli’s contemporary Sir John Mandeville (likely the pseudonym of a travel-averse plagiarist) described the “gerfaunts” of Arabia as deer-rumped horses. For the eunuch general Zheng He, who brought a giraffe home to Beijing, in 1415, it was a mythical qílín incarnate. Not until the seventeenth century did the English, who fixated on the giraffe’s camel-ish shape and leopard-ish coloring, stop calling it a camelopard. Today, of course, we recognize the giraffe as a distinct species, though the misapprehensions of the past endure in the animal’s Linnaean name: Giraffa camelopardalis.

And then there’s that neck. Why is it so long? Unlike the swan and the ostrich, which have a surplus of neck bones, the giraffe has seven cervical vertebrae, the standard count for a mammal. But each one is eleven inches in length. A human’s entire spine, by comparison, is about two feet from top to bottom, not much longer than a giraffe’s tongue. (Fynes Moryson, a Scotsman who went to Constantinople in 1597, was distressed to find that the giraffe in the palace menagerie there was able to plant “familiar kisses” on him from great range.) The French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck held that a giraffe was merely an antelope whose progenitors had strained their necks toward higher and higher branches for food. Charles Darwin gave barely a thought to the neck problem—it didn’t appear in his magnum opus, “On the Origin of Species,” until the sixth edition—but he favored a similar, if more scientifically rigorous, explanation. In periods of drought, he suggested, when all the other animals on the savannah were scrounging at eye level, Giraffa sprouted the evolutionary equivalent of an EZ Reacher, which gave it access to a private larder in the succulent crowns of the acacia trees, a privilege it passed on to its offspring. “It seems to me almost certain that an ordinary hoofed quadruped might be converted into a giraffe,” Darwin wrote, echoing Lamarck. The theory was accepted as gospel for decades, until researchers noticed two problems. First, no other quadrupeds underwent such a conversion: the giraffe remained the lankiest thing around. And second, the animal grazed with its neck horizontal about half the time, feeding on the same bushes and shrubs as everyone else. (As Edgar Williams notes in his book “Giraffe,” the animal is a born topiarist, “giving a manicured appearance to the savannah.”)

Another popular theory involved sexual selection. To establish social dominance, male giraffes engage in a practice known as necking, swinging their heads at each other and trying to score a hit with their ossicones, the horn-like growths on their skulls. (Afterward they make up, sometimes quite bawdily.) For the neck to be a primarily sexual characteristic, it would need to be larger in males than in females, like a fiddler crab’s fiddle claw—but it isn’t. Although males are indeed taller and heavier than females, the sexes’ necks are proportional. Yet another theory, less widely accepted than the first two, posits that the giraffe’s long neck is compensation for its long legs. (You try bending down to drink on those things.) The neck’s true provenance is perhaps some combination of these theories. As Darwin wrote, “The preservation of each species can rarely be determined by any one advantage, but by the union of all, great and small.”

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8 comments on “How the Giraffe Got Its Neck

  • Modern day sailors trying to navigate across the north Atlantic passage, from Ireland to Greenland, using materials, and ship designs, that were common during Saint Brendan’s era, or somewhere thereafter, could replicate nearly everything save the environment and the animals living in it. The now extinct auk (sea bird) was explained, in one book I read (can’t remember the title, it was in the early 90s), as being an animal that was unafraid of a person in a ship/boat and lived in large groups. A mariner at sea could approach the bird and easily grab it, in the ocean. Such an animal would be a great source for vitamins and fish bait (to catch protein and other nutrient resources), etc. and would lessen the need to store protein/food on the ship, so I would guess a ship using the auk for bait/food could use the extra space to store more water/liquid/beer and other gear. This idea assumes that ancient sailors knew how to catch fish.

    I wonder what northern Africa looked like before humans began to harvest plants and especially wood from desert trees, for cooking fires, for building cities and towns and other stuff, for waging war, to clear by fire to grow food or hunt in vast spaces, etc.?

    Midwestern America native plant flora were largely destroyed when the Sooners and other farmers created the dust bowl, building farms by removing native plants with deep root systems that could survive droughts. Dust storms . . . !

    If a mature desert forest had dried root systems holding organic matter in the upper horizon levels of the soil, being home to plants, shrubs, and trees that can slowly grow deep root systems over decades to tap underground water tables, I would imagine the African ecosystem would be much more diverse, with insect, animal, and plant life. Bugs absorbing early morning/evening dew, being eaten by mammals and lizards that live underground when it gets hot in the sun, would help to feed plants, brush, and trees retaining a functioning ecosystem because their dried roots would hold the sand/dust we call a “normal” desert.

    Somewhere in time I remember a tv documentary discussing that a certain desert cacti can’t reproduce in N. Mexico, because the plant requires shade once supplied by a mature desert forest that had been removed in the 18th century. These multi-hundred year old plants are the last of their kind.

    Someone should put that “. . . distinctive aroma [that] repulses many ticks . . .” in a bottle to see if it can help repulse ticks in New England, to reduce lyme disease.

    My naive guess about the cause of the giraffe’s bone structure is the Founder’s Effect, and/or selective pressure from a predator and/or food source that has been extinct for a long time.

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  • Jeremy #1: could replicate nearly everything save the environment and the animals living in it.

    I’ve just returned from a wonderful week’s holiday in Sicily, where on my increasingly unreliable legs I stumbled around Greek, Roman and Islamic remains.

    I went for a swim in a delightful cove surrounded by cliffs and ancient remains The water was pleasantly chilled, but not cold, I took long leisurely strokes, experiencing the sublime bliss of swimming in the sea, where long ago Sophocles may have found peace from his troubled soul. Suddenly a red hot poker seared my arm and I noticed that no-one else was swimming – jellyfish.

    They told me that the Mediterranean is now unswimmable, due to being infested with jellyfish. All the predators are more or less fished out, and invasive species have entered the cradle of our civilisation, by means of the enlarged Suez Canal and from the ballast water of ships. What a loss to the world!

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  • Jeremy #1
    May 24, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    I wonder what northern Africa looked like before humans began to harvest plants and especially wood from desert trees, for cooking fires, for building cities and towns and other stuff, for waging war, to clear by fire to grow food or hunt in vast spaces, etc.?

    Sahara Went from Green to Desert in a Flash

    From lakes and grasslands with hippos and giraffes to a vast desert, North Africa’s sudden geographical transformation 5,000 years ago was one of the planet’s most dramatic climate shifts.

    The transformation took place nearly simultaneously across the continent’s northern half, a new study finds. The results will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

    The findings come from analyses of dust blown west from Africa and dropped into the Atlantic Ocean. Researchers sifted through 30,000 years of dust and ocean bottom muck retrieved with ocean drilling ships. The changing levels of windblown dust in the ocean sediments provide scientists with clues to Africa’s climate and how it has changed over time. Simply put, a lot of dust means drier conditions and less dust means a wetter environment.

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  • “I never think to look up (at things)”, a friend once said. Read a report that two giraffes got clobbered via truck transport entering a tunnel. Humans are forever running into wires and low bridges. In some zoos, curious giraffes get necks caught in fencing gaps. – ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’, BBC and RD. Not for the squeamish.

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  • Thanks folks, Alan4discussion and bonnie2, for the links to additional information.

    The video of the giraffe being dissected was very interesting. A small shark is the largest animal that I have dissected, typical of a college zoology course. I think I’ll stick with the small stuff.

    I’m reposting the two links: – ‘Inside Nature’s Giants’, BBC and RD. Not for the squeamish. 48 minutes. [Alan4discussion copied the link’s article in his post #3]

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  • eejit #2,

    I enjoyed reading your post. Nice images of the past and present.

    Curious, did the jelly fish sting help you in any way with alleviating your joint inflammation?

    When the Mediterranean coastal communities are more stable, and able to both practice and enforce sensible fishing regulations, with a little luck and lots of science, maybe we can restore what has been lost.

    Tall grass, fields of tall spindle like grass growing to heights of eight to twelve feet may have given the giraffe an environmental advantage. Just a guess.

    Adolescent moose in my area are being killed in large numbers due to ticks, so many ticks, and global warming, ugh.–moose-health-20160515-story.html

    There’s a quick yes/no question poll to answer before accessing this news article.

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  • Jeremy #7: eejit #:2 I enjoyed reading your post. Nice images of the past and present.

    Thanks for your kind comments Jeremy. I’m not sure if “enjoyed” is the appropriate term for such disastrous ecological news, but I’m grateful for your appreciation and the ancient ruins were wonderful.

    The jellyfish sting did nothing for my joints, but over a week after it happened it is still very livid and moreover hurts far more than it did in the first few days. I’ve looked it up on the Net, and some stings can take months to disappear, so I’m paying a heavy price for my languid swim. Never swim in the Med!

    Local fisher folk and dysfunctional governments are doubtless responsible for the overfishing and neglect of Mare Nostrum; the Italians are said to be guilty of gross overfishing of swordfish, and it is alleged that the tuna were hunted out by the Japanese. The laws on drift netting are widely ignored, and some illegal nets are 50km long. They’re also prone to break free from their boats and drift around catching fish until the nylon mesh degenerates, which takes very many years.

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