Giraffes and elephants have been two of the most startling and bizarre organisms that I have seen in Kenya. Of all the megafauna, giraffes in particular are probably the easiest to spot in the African savanna. Not only do they tower over most vegetation, but their orange lanky bodies are relatively conspicuous against the sea of green, yellow, and brown. Every time I see them strolling around I can’t help but think of Diplodocus and other sauropods that once walked the Earth.
The subspecies of giraffe that occurs at Mpala is the reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardis reticulata). In comparison to other subspecies, reticulated giraffes are easily diagnosable by their thin white webbing that overlays a deep reddish orange or brown coat. It almost looks like throwing a bridal veil fungus on top of a uniformly-colored body. There is substantial variability in coloration and pattern between individuals, so much so that each individual is unique. Most giraffes I’ve seen have been more orange/brown in color, though I’ve encoutered one old male that was exceptionally dark with small white splotches in the center of the polygonal patches. Most of the giraffe herds we’ve spotted seem to mind their own business and continue stripping down acacia leaves with their long rough tongue. However, when alone or with a few others they seem much more responsive to our presence. Most will turn their heads and gaze inquisitively at us, gracing us with extended viewing time of their spectacular body forms.
All giraffes photographed in situ / after slight disturbance [1-2]
Like many other large herbivores (even hippos!), giraffes are also often accompanied by oxpeckers. These birds consume hitchhiking parasites such as biting flies and mites. What a happy mutualism, with oxpeckers gaining nutrition from yummy insects and the mammals becoming less susceptible to infection and disease. Or is it? There is strong evidence for oxpeckers drinking blood and consuming skin tissue from the animals they reside on, and some work indicates that wounds heal much slower in the presence of oxpeckers than in their absence. Maybe they should have an alternative common name, vampire birds. There is already the so-called vampire ground finch (Geospiza septentrionalis) that pecks on blue-footed boobies to drink their blood, a behavior that may have arisen from originally consuming parasite loads. Maybe a similar story is going on here.
The distribution of reticulated giraffes lies mostly in Kenya, but also extends into southern Ethiopia and western Somalia. Population estimates for this East African subspecies are under 10,000 and decreasing, and they are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List. Again, poaching and displacement due to human encroachment on habitat are their primary threats.
Male giraffes will use their long necks to propel their two blunt ossicones into one another during combat. Finding and feeling the giraffe skull last month really let sink in just how large, heavy, and formidable these beings are. With long legs and hoofed feet, they are capable of dealing lethal blows in defense against a predator. An adult giraffe is a challenge for lions to take down successfully. One of the most dramatic clips of footage I’ve ever seen is a slow-motion shot of a lioness jumping up to grab a giraffe by the neck, hit forward by its chest and smacked down by the giraffe’s legs.