Saturday, September 4, 2010

Giraffes and their Necks

Giraffes are the tallest living land animal standing anywhere between 14 and 16 feet. Antelope-like animals could be found on the plains of Africa some 15 million years ago, some of which had the distinguishing long neck feature. Within 6 million years, those same animals evolved into what we known today as the 'modern' giraffe, with half of its height dedicated to that long neck.

There are many under the assumption that the neck of the giraffe evolved the way it did so as to aid the animal in feeding. After all, with their long neck, they're able to reach leaves on trees in which rivals wouldn't be able follow suit. While giraffes found in South Africa do in fact look for food high up in the treetops, in other areas of Africa, even when food is limited, other giraffes don't necessarily bother with the leaves found on the tops of trees. There is however, another theory as to why the giraffes neck evolved in such a way; it could have more to do with competing with other males for a mate.

When male giraffes fight with each other over a female, it's called “necking.” Standing side by side, each male swings the back of its head into the legs and ribs of the other. Giraffes have thick skulls and growths resembling horns (called ossicones) on the top of their heads and as a result they can batter each other so severely, they're capable of breaking bones. With a neck that is long and powerful, it can only serve to help the giraffe in these battles. In addition, studies have shown that males with long necks win their duals over those with shorter necks and female giraffes prefer them overall.

© Shelley Vassall

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