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How Giraffes Work | Stuff You Should Know Podcast (Transcript)

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How Giraffes Work | Stuff You Should Know Podcast (Transcript)

Length: 57 mins

Welcome to Stuff You Should Know, from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark: Hey and welcome to the podcast. I’m Josh Clark and there’s Charles W. Chuck Bryant and Jerry’s over there, so that makes this Stuff You Should Know.

Charles W. Chuck Bryant: Amazing animal edition.

JC: Yes, a special request fulfilled animal edition.

CB: Yeah, we should tell the story, huh?

JC: Oh, yeah for sure.

CB: [Laughs] There’s no way we cannot tell the story because it’s the cutest thing that’s happened in a long time.

JC: It really is. So we did a show in Vancouver in September something, right?

CB: Yeah, in real time, it was last week for us. We usually don’t turn stuff around this fast.

JC: Right, exactly. And a lot of times, we’ll do Q&A after a show because we’re like, “The podcast isn’t enough. We owe people more than that.” So we’ll do a Q&A, right?

CB: That’s right.

JC: [Laughs] And the last question of the night was this cute little girl, just adorable, and her name was Mika, wasn’t it?

CB: Yeah.

JC: Okay. And Mika had a special request, Chuck, and what was it?

CB: Well, it kind of went down like this: Mika’s dad walks her up to the microphone, everyone turns their attention to this adorable 6-year-old and in front of, what, was it 1200 people?

JC: Yes.

CB: She said, “Can you do a podcast on Giwaffes?” And 1200 hearts melted and immediately afterward, you and I were like, “Well, we’re doing this as soon as we get back.”

JC: Yeah, that’s right and this is where we’re at, we did it.

CB: Yeah, and you know what? Mika, you are not alone because giraffes are amazing, as you will see in greater detail, and you are not alone among your peers, because I got to tell you, as the father of a 2-year-old daughter, and Jerry, as the mom of a 2-year-old, they’re all obsessed with giraffes.

JC: Yeah, it’s true. Umi and I started our niece, Mila, actually off on giraffes pretty early. They’re some of the most adorable stuffed animals or toys around too. So I mean it’s understandable how it would stick in a kid’s craw like that.

CB: Yeah, I mean they look nothing like things that they’ve seen yet enough like things they’ve seen, I think, at that age to where they think, “Well, I’ve seen a horse.” or “A Howes,” or “I’ve seen a zebra.” “I’ve seen a camel,” even, and those things look a little weird. But then a giraffe comes along and small minds are blown.

JC: They are blown, so much that I suspect that there are giraffes in the little angel holding bay where babies stay before they come down here to earth.

CB: [Laughs] And yes, when I say small minds, it’s not to say children are small minded. Maybe literally small-minded, but not in the figurative, adults sense.

JC: Physiologically speaking.

CB: [Laughs] There you go.

JC: So everybody knows what giraffes are. You can point to a picture of a giraffe and say, “What is this?” and a person will say, “It’s a giraffe.” That’s pretty common thing to do. Maybe, arguably, the best Charlie Harper illustration of all time is the mother and baby giraffe snuggling.

CB: I don’t know what that is.

JC: Look it up. I’ll send it to you, you’re gonna love it. It’s just adorable. So everyone’s quite familiar with giraffes, but giraffes are one of those animals that, we found from our research, are just taken for granted. Everyone’s like, “Look at those things, they are amazing. But let’s just leave it at that,” apparently. It was how science approached giraffes for millennia, basically.

CB: Yeah, in fact, these evolutionary wonders, and boy aren’t they in every sense of the word? For many millennia, human dumb-dumbs referred to these animals as camel-leopards.

JC: [Laughs] Right, with a tiny little hyphen in between the two to really show that clearly a camel and a leopard had gotten it on at some point and created the giraffe.

CB: Yeah, which I mean makes a little bit a sense. They are sort of camel-like with their necks and their kind of long legs and hooves; but then also, you look at a giraffe’s coat and that amazing leopard-like pattern, so it sort of makes sense that human dumb-dumbs would say stuff like that.

JC: Right, because they didn’t understand evolution. And even Mr. Evolution himself, Charles Darwin, was like, “I’m not even getting into the giraffe for a while,” right?

CB: [Laughs] The giraffe debate?

JC: Yeah, so he started wading in to where the giraffe got its neck. Because by the time Darwin came along, they had said, “Okay, they’re not camel-leopards, we know that much. All right, everybody stop making fun of us.”

CB: Right. But also, “Let’s give it a scientific name, Giraffa Camelopardalis.” [Laughs]

JC: Yeah, which is a nod to the dumb-dumbs of yore.

CB: That’s right.

JC: Right. So by the time Darwin got in on this, he had written On the Origin of the Species, but it was the sixth edition before the giraffe makes an appearance in it.

CB: Yeah, I’m sure Mika has already read that.

JC: Sure, that’s why she was asking. She was hoping we could expound on that.

CB: [Laughs] That’s right.

JC: So Darwin suggested that, potentially, the giraffe’s neck evolved because, in times of drought or famine where other animals were starving and dropping like flies, the giraffe’s neck gave it an advantage to reach leaves on trees that other animals couldn’t, so it was quite literally rising above the competition, natural selection-wise, right?

CB: Yeah, and that’s got to be it, right?

JC: Well, one of the issues that’s raised against it is that giraffes still feed at the same level as other animals a pretty significant amount of the time.

CB: Well, they’re just greedy. [Laughs]

JC: I guess so. They’re like, “Some for me and I’ll have some of yours too.”

CB: Yeah, I don’t know, I can’t think of any other reason. It makes complete sense.

JC: Well, there’s another guy, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who is pretty credible as far as old-timey scientists go, and Lamarck said, “I think they’re an antelope that just stretched its neck further and further and further,” and he lost all credibility.

CB: Yeah, I think so.

JC: But they’re still not entirely certain what precisely it is that gave the giraffe its neck because you don’t see that elsewhere in nature. It’s not an adaptation that is pretty common like eyes or hearing or flight. It’s its own thing in a lot of ways, but there are some other long neck animals, like swans or something like that, but giraffes are mammals and, aside from that really long neck and a couple of other things that they’ve had to change or adapt to because of their long neck and other features, they’re nothing like other long-necked animals.

CB: Yeah, that’s right. In the long neck club, they stand alone.

JC: Exactly.

CB: All right, so let’s start with classification and taxonomy and that kind of thing because that sort of lays the groundwork for what we’re talking about here. Technically speaking, giraffes are what you would call an Even-Toed Ungulate, which is kind of a fancy way of saying they have just two weight-bearing hooves on each foot, like a camel, isn’t that right?

JC: Yeah, I believe so.

CB: Okay.

JC: Not a leopard, though.

CB: No, no. A leopard with hooves would not be much of a leopard, let’s be honest. And they are in an order called Artiodactyla, and that does include the antelope, to be fair, but also includes things like sheep and moose and hippos.

JC: Cows.

CB: Cows, pigs, a little weirdly, but maybe not because they have the little hooves. What else?

JC: So their family is Giraffidae; and in the Giraffidae family, there’s two genera, right?

CB: Yes.

JC: There’s the Giraffa Genus and the Okapia Genus and they split, they think now, about 11 million years ago. And still, today, you can walk around in Africa and find the okapi, but the okapi looks way more like it’s related to a horse or a zebra than it does to a giraffe, right?

CB: Yeah, did you see those things?

JC: Yeah, I’ve seen them before. They’re pretty neat. They’re like chocolate colored with zebra-striped legs.

CB: Yeah, it literally looks like it’s an animal that said, “I don’t know what I want to be. I like you guys; I like you guys, so I really would just like to sort of be both of you.”

JC: Right, it’s a social butterfly.

CB: Yeah, it’s a very pretty animal.

JC: And then over in the Giraffa Genus, there’s basically one species as far as anyone’s concerned. So any giraffe you ever see, even if it looks different from all the other giraffes you see, it was the species Giraffa Camelopardalis, like you said, right?

CB: Yes.

JC: But there is a 2016 study that was carried out by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and it was published in the Journal of Current Biology, and they said, “You know all these little subspecies that we’ve been saying are actually the same species of giraffes or just variations? They’re actually different species; there’s four giraffe species.”

CB: Yeah, that study was just last year and now they’re saying that that’s not the case.

JC: Is that right?

CB: Well, isn’t that what it says?

JC: Well, I think it’s more like the wheels of biological science, as an academic field, moves slowly. So their findings are supposedly legitimate.

CB: But they’re just not saying… They didn’t put the stamp of authenticity on it.

JC: Not yet.

CB: Okay.

JC: They probably will in the future, but they’re like, “Just give us some time. We just made some tea.”

CB: [Laughs] As scientist are wont to do. You want to take a break?

JC: Sure.

CB: All right, we’ll take a break and crane our necks up and get some food to sustain ourselves and then talk a little bit about these awesome, awesome necks right after this.

JC: Okay, Chuck, so there was not a lot of study in the field of giraffes; everybody was just like, “That’s neat. Giraffes are cool; let’s just leave it at that.” Especially in the field specifically, out in their natural habitat, they weren’t studied. Killed by poachers, but not necessarily studied, right? So most of the understanding we had of giraffes was of captive giraffes that were being held hostage in zoos, right? But, from those, we got a pretty decent amount of, at least, anatomical understanding of them.

CB: Yeah, and I mean we just have to add this to the list of the jellyfish and the octopus, bats, what else are we forgetting?

JC: Man, there is another one that we did. We did one recently. I guess frogs?

CB: Yeah, for sure.

JC: All animals.

CB: Yeah, any animal we cover we find fascinating. You noticed we haven’t done one on the common house cat?

JC: No.

CB: [Laughs] We probably should, though, because I’m a cat lover.

JC: I feel like that would be like doing an episode on gamers. Just inviting trouble, you know what I mean?

CB: Well, yeah I mean I love cats, of course I do, but I just don’t know that it’s in the same category as an octopus when it comes to amazement and astonishment, you know?

CB: That’s true. Although we did speak about them for a while in the… What was it? Domestic animals episode?

CB: Did we?

JC: Yeah, I think so.

JC: And, of course, toxoplasmosis reared its ugly head.

JC: Oh, yeah.

CB: All right, Mika’s like, “Get back to it, guys. I don’t really care about that stuff.” [Laughs]

JC: Like, “I hate cats.”

CB: So they are the tallest living animal in the world and it says in here, and this has kind of reminded me of something, that a giraffe can look in a second story window, and I just saw it recently, I had no idea this existed, but Giraffe Manor in Nairobi, this is a hotel and it is a… What do you call it? I mean they work with conservation, but…

JC: An eco-lodge?

CB: Well, I guess it’s that too, but I can’t think of the right name. But what it is, it’s a hotel and they work to help giraffes that are in trouble and help to re-introduce troubled giraffes into the wild.

JC: It’s like a home for a juvenile delinquent giraffes.

CB: Yeah, like a rehabilitation center. And I just saw this for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and there are pictures of people dining and eating in a second story window and giraffes sticking their heads right through them and eating fruit off a plate and people just thinking, “I’m getting cheated out of my breakfast and it’s the best time I can remember that happening.” So it’s amazing and now I want to… I think Emily and I are gonna try and go on a safari. We’re dying to go on a safari; I just need to find out a good one that’s ecologically sound. I don’t know anything about safaris, so I don’t know if they’re bad or they’re good or there are good ones and bad ones, but I’m gonna check it out and we’re definitely gonna go stay in that hotel.

JC: The first question I think you want to ask of a safari operator is, “Do you use cattle prods?” That’s a big one.

CB: Yeah. Do they do stuff like that?

JC: I’m sure some people do for sure.

JC: Yeah, and hey, if anyone knows of a really sustainable, well-done safari, let me know. We’re in the market.

JC: So what was it called, Giraffe Manor?

CB: Yeah.

JC: Okay, so yeah, they are just super tall and the reason why they’re super tall, there’s two reasons. One is, obviously, their neck. Their neck alone is six feet long, right?

CB: Yes.

JC: And again, there are other long-necked animals out there in nature like swans, but giraffes are mammals and they have the same number of cervical vertebrae that other mammals do; they’re just really big cervical vertebrae, right? So each vertebra of a giraffe’s neck is about 11 inches in length.

CB: That’s crazy.

JC: And there’s seven of them, and you put them all together and you got about a 6-foot long neck, but they also have really long legs, too, that are also about 6 feet long.

CB: Yeah, so 6 foot long legs, 6-foot long neck, and you have giraffes, female, because they still have other body parts, females can grow up to 14 feet, weight about 1500 pounds and males can grow up to 18 feet tall and weigh about 3000 pounds.

JC: Yeah. For males, it’s 5.5 meters tall and 1360 kilograms, so they’re big.

CB: That’s amazing.

JC: They’re big, big animals, but they’re also known as gentle giants too. They’re not very violent animals as we’ll see.

CB: True, although if you’re into the sweet giraffe, do not look up videos of male giraffes fighting.

JC: I know, it’s disturbing to watch.

CB: It is very disturbing and you just want to think like, “Oh man, you guys should just always like each other.”

JC: Yeah, like, “Why do you friends fight?”

CB: [Laughs] Pretty much. So part of being tall like this, it presents some amazing evolutionary traits and some challenges that, thankfully, the giraffe has overcome. Let’s talk about their nerve cells. If you’ve got a neck that long, everything is just stretched out. So for instance, their recurrent laryngeal nerve, which activates their larynx, helps them swallowing, because they’re gonna need a little help swallowing down that long neck, that thing is 15 feet long in itself because it starts in the brain, it goes down the neck, and then loops back up to the throat.

JC: Right, and we have one of those, too, and it’s actually pointed to this proof that it’s evolution, not creation, that accounts for us because it’s just such a poor workaround. But it’s 15 feet long in giraffes, right?

CB: Crazy.

JC: So since it’s a nerve fiber, nerve fibers are made of bundled nerve cells, so that means that, if you separated these things, it’d make up 15 foot long cells.

CB: Yeah, that’s nuts.

JC: It really is.

CB: Is that your fact of the show?

JC: There’s about 50 of those in here, I think.

CB: [Laughs] I think you’re right. So if you’ve ever been to a wildlife refuge, that’s the word I was thinking of, or a zoo, let’s say, and you’ve seen a giraffe up close and personal, the one thing that you will notice, and some zoos will even have times of day where you can feed the giraffes, which is pretty amazing, but the first thing you’ll probably notice aside from their neck when they get up face to face, aside from their friendly eyes, is the size of their tongue when they go licking stuff. And they have a very active tongue, that thing’s always moving around it seems like, but these tongues are almost 2 feet long, they can be 21 inches in length.

JC: Yes, and not only are they long, they’re also prehensile. They have the ability to grasp things as we’ll see later, right?

CB: That’s right.

JC: So they have enormous tongues, they have feet that are about a foot across, about a third of a meter across, right? And their hearts, Chuck.

CB: I think this might be the fact of the show for me.

JC: Well then, take it.

CB: Well, their hearts, if you talk about a giraffe as a big-hearted animal, you can say that in every sense of the word because the heart of a giraffe is 2 feet long and weighs about 25 pounds, which Mika, for you; that’s 11 kilograms.

JC: [Laughs] That’s right. So they have this huge heart and you’re like, “Well, of course they have a huge heart you dummy, it’s a huge animal.” That’s true, but prepare for this. If you did, based on body mass, proportionately, a giraffe’s organs, like its heart or its lungs that can take in enormous amount of air at one time.

CB: 12 gallons.

JC: Right. They’re average. They’re just about average in size, right? So the giraffe is actually faced with a couple of issues here, right? If its hearts is, proportionately speaking, normal sized, but its neck is way longer than other mammals, it has an issue. And its legs are way longer than other animals; it has a secondary issue, right? So you would think, “Well, it needs a huge heart,” and again, though, it’s not proportionately up to the task, so there’s been other adaptations that the giraffe underwent over time to allow for it to not, say, faint when it suddenly lifts head up after drinking water or for blood not to collect and pool in its legs.

CB: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. So the way this works is the heart of a giraffe is really, really thick. So it has a very thick wall, and so that means it can pump blood at a super high pressure, about five times that of the human heart. So that sort of solves that problem. It gets blood going where it needs to go as effectively as possible. And then they have a really tough coat and a tough hide and the way this article puts it is it sort of acts like a compression sock but around the whole body, so that, basically, just helps the blood counteract the gravity of pumping all the way up that long neck to the brain.

JC: Right, exactly. It keeps it also from collecting or pooling in places where it shouldn’t; just keeps everything running smoothly.

CB: Yeah, like those big feet.

JC: Yeah. So it’s pretty interesting stuff, right?

CB: Agreed.

JC: And you were talking about the coat as well and one thing I saw, in research, is that the giraffe’s coat is unique to the individual, like our fingerprints or iris print is, which I hadn’t really thought about, which makes total sense, you know? Giraffes are all unique, individual little flowers.

CB: Snowflakes, if you will. [Laughs]

JC: Sure.

CB: Just good, giant, liberal mammals. Mika, you can ask your dad about that joke. So when you look at a giraffe, you might think, “Well, yeah. Giraffes, they all just sort of have this… Maybe it’s unique, but the patterns are all basically the same.” Not exactly true. Depending on where the giraffe lives and what they eat, they’re gonna have a different sort of pattern going on and then each one is unique unto itself. So in Kenya, I’m gonna just call it a Maasai Giraffe, they have the pattern that look like the oak leaves; very, very pretty pattern.

JC: Right, and then there’s Uganda giraffes, they have big, large, brown splotches with lighter brown lines separating the splotches, like a giraffe. That’s the one you think of, or I think of when I think giraffes.

CB: I think of all of them as giraffes. [Laughs]

JC: Sure.

CB: Then there’s the Reticulated Giraffe, and this is only in Northern Kenya, evidently. These have the darker coat and it looks like really narrow white lines all over the place, but with all these, it’s kind of what are you looking at? Are you looking at the spots or the lines in between?

JC: Sure, yeah. It’s like an optical illusion. And the whole reason that giraffe’s hide or coat looks like that is because it’s camouflage. They’re so big, there’s really no way for them to hide anywhere, so they hide in plain sight by blending in with the trees that they eat.

CB: That’s right.

JC: There is also, Chuck, I don’t know if you saw this or not, but in Kenya, again, at the Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy, they found two all-white giraffes. Head to toe, white.

JC: I think I’ve seen those.

CB: Yeah, I think they kind of became an internet hit recently. And they say that they’re not albino giraffes, there’s like a lesser condition, called leucism, which really just kind of affects the skin and hair and coat, but not, say, the eyes or anything like that. But it’s really cute. It’s a mom and her baby and they’re being watched, probably, more than other giraffes, so the mom’s kind of like, “You stay here behind the bushes, okay? I’m gonna handle the photographs.”

CB: [Laughs]

JC: But it’s just cute to watch them. I love watching giraffes at all times.

CB: At all times?

JC: I’m watching some right now.

CB: Are they outside of our studio? Oh my gosh, how wonderful would that be?

JC: You can’t see them; they’re looking over your shoulder right now.

CB: I know, I have my back to the door. So giraffes live in what are called savannas throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and the weather there is semi-arid. They like woodlands that are sort of open, that have smattering trees and bushes, and that’s really kind of the best habitat for giraffes.

JC: Right. And lastly, Chuck, their eyes, right? You said that their eyes are adorable and that’s largely because of their wonderful eyelashes, but they also have really large eyes and maybe among the better vision of any land animals. Their peripheral vision is so good they can almost see behind them.

CB: Yeah, it’s amazing.

JC: Yeah, and they can see in color, they can see a long, long way in front of them and, like you said, those wide angle lens eyeballs, and they’re huge, is really handy because giraffes, basically lions see giraffes and they think, “All right, I know no one likes to see this kind of thing on television or on nature shows, but we have to eat too,” and they make for good eating if you’re a lion or, let’s say, a crocodile.

JC: Right, and aside from humans, that’s basically it. Hyenas prey on giraffe calves, but they don’t have that many predators.

CB: Yeah, well, which is great because we need more giraffes.

JC: Yeah, and they also don’t have a lot of recourse against predators. They can kick, as we’ll see, but there’s not a lot they can do besides run away. But even when they run, despite their lungs being so big, they don’t oxygenate their bodies well enough that they can run for very long distances, so they can run fast in short bursts, but being camouflaged and being so huge and high off the ground that their predators can’t actually reach them easily, that’s really how they survive.

CB: Should we take another break?

JC: Yeah, let’s take one.

CB: All right, we’ll be right back.

CB: All right, so you were talking about giraffes running fast; they can run about 35 miles an hour. For our Canadian friends, and certainly for Mika, that’s 56 kilometers, and we don’t often do those conversions anymore.

JC: Well, we don’t usually have an episode requested by a cute little Canadian.

CB: [Laughs] That’s correct. Although, you could make the argument that all Canadians are cute, right?

JC: Sure, nice at very least.

CB: So have you ever seen a giraffe run in person?

JC: I don’t know that I have. You know that thing, when you start to get older, Chuck, where your brain has been around long enough that it can just make up memories and you don’t know if you’ve actually experienced it or if your brain’s like, “This is what that person just asked would look like, so go ahead and say yes”? That’s what I just did. I’m not sure if I have or not but, at the very least, I’ve seen it on TV and can imagine it.

CB: All right, so I know we did an episode on zoos and whether or not zoos are good or bad and I sort of still haven’t completely made up my mind on zoos.

JC: I have.

CB: I know you have, you’re on record. But I went to the San Diego Zoo when we did a tour show there a couple years ago, and they have a giraffe habitat, a very nice one, and they had some giraffes walking around doing cute stuff, and then one of them, out of nowhere, took off and started running, and it was the most graceful thing I’ve probably ever seen in nature that didn’t involve wings and flying.

JC: Oh, wow.

CB: It was unbelievable. You can look it up on YouTube, “Giraffes running.”

JC: So like banjo music wouldn’t have been appropriate?

CB: No, no, no, no. They just sort of glide, man. And they’re so big and their necks are going forward and backward, kind of like they’re cranking it out with their neck, and then their legs, it almost seems like they’re not touching the ground. It’s a gallop, but it’s hard to explain. When you see a horse gallop, you feel like they’re grabbing that ground and it’s very just strong looking, but a giraffe just sort of glides. For such a big animal, and that might have something to do with the optics of it, but it’s just something to see.

JC: Well, also the way that they move their legs is kind of peculiar as well. I think when they’re running, it’s front legs and then back legs and front legs and then back legs, if I’m not mistaken, but then, when they’re moving along at a slower speed, they’re moving like right side legs, left side legs, right side legs, left side legs. So it’s not like a one at a time; it’s a bizarre way to walk around. Yet another amazing thing about giraffes.

CB: All right, so one of our favorite things are groups of animals, names of groups of animals, like a murder of crows and where they get these crazy names. And giraffes, I never knew it until today, a group of giraffes is called a tower.

JC: I didn’t know that either.

CB: Really neat.

JC: So giraffes, it’s long been known they’re social animals, they live in packs.

CB: No, they live in towers. [Laughs]

JC: They live in towers, I’m sorry. Since th