Skyscrapers of the African Veld
By “Awake!” correspondent in Rhodesia
TALLEST animal in the world—this is the distinction that the giraffe enjoys. One of these skyscrapers of the African veld may stand up to nineteen feet high. Why, even a newborn giraffe is six feet tall! Yes, next to trees, these skyscrapers of the African open, dry country are the tallest living things on earth.
What most persons notice when they first see a giraffe is its very long neck and its thin, long legs. The neck seems to look all out of proportion to the rest of the animal, but it is not so much the long neck that causes this appearance as the animal’s very short backbone.
The Long Neck
The neck, which can be from six to eight feet long in a mature animal, has the same number of vertebrae as do those of other mammals such as the hippopotamus, that is, seven. Of course, these seven neck vertebrae are of enormous size compared with those of other animals. Nonetheless, the giraffe’s neck is surprisingly flexible.
Just looking at the giraffe, you would think that it needs a powerful heart to pump blood all the way up that long neck to the brain. The heart is indeed large, up to two feet long with walls three inches thick and weighing as much as twenty-five pounds! The giraffe’s heartbeat is unusual too for such a large animal, beating 150 to 170 times per minute, compared to about seventy-two times a minute for an adult human.
Something that puzzled people for a long time was why the giraffe did not burst the blood vessels in its head when it suddenly lowered its head to the ground, and why, when it suddenly lifted up its head again, it did not get giddy. The reason is that the giraffe is well equipped with valves in the arteries and veins. Moreover, the giraffe has a spongy network called the “wonder net” that protects the brain from forceful surges of blood. This wonderful “power transformer,” as it were, interrupts the blood flow through the carotid, the main artery to the brain. It disperses it into fine streams that finally reach the brain without damaging pressure. Marvelous design indeed!
Because the giraffe has such a long neck you would think it could reach the ground easily, but this is not so. The muscles and ligaments of the neck are attached to long spines on the dorsal surface of the thoracic vertebrae, which makes it difficult for the giraffe to reach the ground without spreading its front legs apart or bending its knees. This is extremely awkward and makes the giraffe vulnerable to attack. So whenever the giraffe gets into this position to drink, or to lick salt, it bobs up and down to see that there is no danger about.
Treetop Eaters in Open Country
The giraffe’s amazing height is just fine for the kind of food it prefers. You see, these skyscrapers of the African veld like to browse on the uppermost leaves of thorny acacia trees, which are from fifteen to twenty feet above ground. Mr. Giraffe is well equipped to dine on these tasty leaves, for his eighteen-inch-long tongue easily tears twigs and leaves from trees. But what about the sharp thorns of the acacia tree? Mr. Giraffe does not seem to mind them, probably because his lips are quite hairy, with a rough inside surface.
These cud-chewing skyscrapers of the African veld are one of the few wild animals that have not come into conflict with cattle and sheep farmers. Cattle and sheep cannot feed on treetop leaves!
As much as it likes its leafy diet, the deep forest is distasteful to the giraffe. And so it is found in the open, dry country called “veld” or “veldt.” Its preference for open country is understandable when you consider the giraffe’s great height and its remarkable eyesight. “The giraffe has the keenest sight of any game animal in Africa,” says zoologist George G. Goodwin, and its eyes can see in almost all directions without turning its head. So Mr. Giraffe can see danger approaching from a long way off and then speedily moves away. It has been noted that when lions, attempting to attack a giraffe, realize that they have been seen, they give up the attempt. When lions do kill a giraffe, it is usually in forested country where the animal’s vision has been obscured.
Many are the fascinating facts about these towering creatures. For example, the giraffe can speed along at thirty-two miles an hour in open country. Even if there are quite a number of trees in the way, the giraffe still speeds along, avoiding collision by swaying its head and neck under branches and between trees. Swift Mr. Giraffe is not easily overtaken, even by a horse. It covers ground in a long loping gallop with great strides, traveling with what has been described as “marvelous grace of form and rhythm of action.”
It is notable that baby giraffes come into the world with a bang! For they have a five-and-a-half-foot drop at birth. Experience in zoos has shown that they suffer no ill effects from this and are able to stand five minutes after birth, and to feed twenty minutes later. When grown, a large bull giraffe weighs between 3,000 and 4,000 pounds.
Sleeping is not such a simple matter with giraffes. Because of their height they often prefer to sleep standing up. Some giraffes, however, do lie down to sleep.
Mr. Giraffe has an appealing expression, with large, dark-brown eyes shaded by long black lashes. On his head are two horns. They are unique to the giraffe. They are solid bone, of a hardness akin to the ivory of an elephant’s tusk, and remain skin-covered throughout the giraffe’s life. There is always at least one pair, and some species have a third horn, between the eyes, in front of the usual pair on the forehead.
Another unusual feature about these tree-high creatures is their blood pressure—the highest in the world, about three times that of man. But that is only one of many remarkable things about giraffes. These skyscraping creatures of the African veld bespeak a wonderful Designer: “For his invisible qualities are clearly seen . . . because they are perceived by the things made.”—Rom. 1:20.