This month, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Emma-Louise Nicholls, looks at the world’s tallest animal - the Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis).
Microphones; All the better for hearing you with my dear
Giraffe’s are a well-known and well represented animal; most zoos, natural history museums, and Duplo animal sets come with a Giraffe or two. Yet no other place I know of has a Giraffe quite like the one we are currently housing. Reaching over five metres high, the Giraffe is the world’s tallest animal, which is perhaps why we only have half of one. A half-Giraffe.
Our half-Giraffe is 2m and 70cm high from the base of the neck to the tip of the metal horns (or ossicones to be precise). Metal horns aren’t the latest giraffid fashion fad, as far as I know they are only utilised by robot Giraffes, such as ours. It has microphones in its ears which act as ‘moveable acoustic receptors’ and allow the Giraffe to hear the sweetie packet you are rustling, plus moveable optical receptors to give you side-eye as you shouldn’t be eating in the gallery.
The huge flexible tube running the length of its neck lights up to show visitors how food is squeezed down the oesophagus (food pipe) and a parallel, smaller tube shows how valves in the blood vessels help the blood reach the top of that very long neck despite the best efforts of the world’s gravitational field trying to yank it back down again.
Giraffes are very well-endowed… in the tongue department. No less than 45cm in length, the tongue is prehensile, meaning it can be wrapped around a twig on a tree and used to strip the leaves away. This immense tongue is a dramatic purple-black colour which adds a bit of elegant glamour to the already impressive organ.
Giraffes are also horny. The horns aren’t huge and obvious like a rhino’s, but short with a rounded tip. If you visit our mechanical Giraffe in The Robot Zoo exhibition take a close look at the horns. The normal manner of sexing the Giraffe can’t be used as the half of the Giraffe we have is the wrong half for such obvious assets. The horns however, will give it away. Although both sexes have horns in Giraffes, they are fluffy on top in females and bald on top in males. I’m not making any remarks about human men here as that would be rude.
Giraffes use infrasonic sound, which means we can’t hear them chatting because our hearing range is set too high. The same sound is used by elephants, though I’m unsure whether they can understand each other. I speak on the same frequency as my dear Glaswegian friend, but I can’t understand her most of the time. Giraffes also have a repertoire of bellows, snorts, hisses and a noise that sounds like a flute being played.
The only non-robotic Giraffe specimen we have is this bone fragment, part of the original Horniman Collection, acquired by Frederick Horniman before 1906.
The closest living relative to the Giraffe wasn’t known to science until 1901. It is called the Okapi and looks like a cross between a Giraffe and a Deer, with Zebra stripes on its bottom and the upper part of all four legs. Given that Okapis are large animals, it feels like scientists at the turn of the last century weren’t doing a very thorough job of looking for new animals. However, they live in dense jungles in Africa and their populations are naturally low, the combination of these two elements means they are seldom seen. Of course now there are more humans than atoms in the world*, their habitat is shrinking and their populations are even lower.
Another claim to fame for the Okapi is it has a strong connection to the infamous journalist Sir Henry Morton Stanley. If you’re a natural history buff/fan or general know-it-all, you’ll know that Stanley was the chap sent to Africa in the early 1870s to locate David Livingstone, which he did, and (is rumoured) to have subsequently uttered the immortal phrase, 'Dr Livingstone, I presume?' Before the Okapi had been ‘discovered’**, Stanley was told by indigenous people of a horse, that lived in the forest, which had a long neck and striped legs. It turned out not to be a horse, but the closest living relative of the Giraffe, and an animal completely new to science, now known as the Okapi.
* Slight exaggeration
** By the academic world/Western science