Gossiping giraffe

By Lesley Thomson

Though we humans cannot hear them, we are aware that elephants can communicate with each other over a distance of six to ten kilometres, sending messages they receive through their feet. By using very low frequency sounds between 1 – 20 Hertz, these infrasounds are pitched below the range of human hearing.

These are not the tummy rumbling sounds, nor the trumpeting you hear. These are private messages sent to each other. It is a way that elephants chat, warn each other, call their young to their side and share their knowledge of available water and food.

Giraffe talk to each other

Not many of us realise that giraffe have a similar form of communication. Research has shown that giraffe have a soft humming noise that they tend to make at night. These extremely low pitched, low frequency, infrasonic sounds, mean that giraffe can, and do, talk to each other over a long distance – but again humans cannot hear them. Some research indicates that female giraffe, as well as making a humming sound, whistle to call their straying young back into the herd.

Growing to a height of 5.5 metres the giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) is the tallest mammal in the world and usually live in herds of 5 to 20. According to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation  there are 4 species of giraffe found in Africa from as far north as Chad to South Africa, with 9 subspecies. All have different markings and colours adapted to their environment, which can be from harsh semi-arid country as in the northern DRC, to savannas, grasslands and open woodlands. Their favourite habitat is areas of acacia shrubs and trees, their thick tongue missing the thorns as they eat the greenery.

Due to poaching, wars and loss of available habitat, the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) list giraffe as vulnerable to critically endangered.

Giraffe communicate in mysterious ways. They may be assessing you, or issuing a warning to their young. Are you the subject of fireside talk?

With their big soft brown eyes, and the way they look at you with so much curiosity, it appears as if they are trying to discover what you are. However, a long stare is also a way to warn you and other predators away, and is often used as a way of warning members of their herd there is danger nearby. Another way of communicating within the herd is touching with their necks.

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Giraffe give birth while standing, sometimes a drop of up to nearly two metres. The calf is licked clean, wobbles on its spindly legs and joins the nursery to be cared for by all the aunts.

To compete against another bull, a giraffe will keep its neck straight, head upright and legs firm. When they fight for dominance they use their neck to attack their opponent’s neck. This is called necking and can become quite vicious. Though they cannot bend their legs, and have to drink water with legs splayed wide open, their legs are extremely strong and a kick from one will kill.

When you next see a giraffe, you may not hear it but you may be a topic of conversation that night. Will you receive a welcome or warning?

*Email Lesley at africatalks@iuncapped.co.za