How Fast Do Newborn Giraffes Learn to Stand and Run?

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • After falling to the ground at birth over a distance of 6 feet, infant giraffes quickly stand up
  • Newborn giraffe calves are on their feet within 30 minutes of being born and can run alongside their mothers just 10 hours later
  • It’s estimated that 50 percent of newborn giraffes may fall victim to predators in some areas, which is why the faster they learn to keep up with their mothers, the better
  • Giraffes are fast runners with long strides, which makes them well suited to outrun predators as adults

Giraffes, with their long necks and legs, tower above other animals of the African savanna. Their sheer size alone makes them a tough target for predators like lions — except when they’re wounded or young. A newborn giraffe can be easy prey for hungry lions, hyenas, leopards and wild dogs, but even they come into the world with some built-in defenses.

Remarkably, after falling to the ground at birth over a distance of 6 feet, infant giraffes quickly stand up. In fact, they’re on their feet within 30 minutes of being born and can run alongside their mothers just 10 hours later.1 Watching their first stumbling steps is adorable, but it’s a matter of life and death for the vulnerable newborns.

Why Baby Giraffes ‘Hit the Ground Running’

Baby giraffes are born to run, quite literally. Dr. Jean-Marie Graïc of Italy’s University of Padova told National Geographic that the animals are essentially mini adults when they’re born. “The nervous system is ready at birth, like it would be of a 1 year old [human] child ready to walk,” he said.2

While human babies spend much of their early developmental energy powering their large brains, giraffes concentrate their energy toward their muscles — a survival trait necessary to keep them alive. It’s estimated that 50 percent of newborn giraffes may fall victim to predators in some areas,3 which is why the faster they learn to keep up with their mothers, the better.

Once up and walking, a newborn giraffe’s next step is to start nursing, which gives him fuel to keep on his feet. Giraffes nurse until they’re about 9 to 12 months old, but will start eating some leaves with the rest of the herd at around 4 months. Before they’re ready to keep up with the 16 to 20 hours of daily walking and grazing that adult giraffes are used to, young giraffes will hide in nearby grass while their moms graze.4

Female giraffes also take turns watching other’s infants while their moms eat. A newborn giraffe’s spot pattern may also influence its survival. Giraffes’ spots are thought to provide camouflage and help the animals evade predators, although they may also be there for temperature regulation and identification purposes.

A recent study from Penn State researchers also confirmed a nearly five-decade-old hypothesis that giraffe coat patterns may be inherited. The study revealed that some characteristics of a giraffe’s spot pattern may be passed from mother to baby. What’s more, the size and shape of spots was linked to giraffe survival. “Larger spots (smaller number of spots) and irregularly shaped or rounder spots … were correlated with increased survival,” the researchers said.5

How Do Giraffes Defend Themselves?

As evidenced by baby giraffes’ quickness on their feet, one of giraffes’ primary defenses is running. Giraffes are fast runners with long strides, which makes them well-suited to outrun predators. Plus, since giraffes are so tall, they have a bird’s eye view of the savannah, which allows them to pick out predators from afar — and get a head start on their escape.

Healthy adult giraffes aren’t easy targets for predators, except when they’re about to give birth or taking a drink. The former makes the giraffe unable to run away quickly while the latter requires giraffes to splay their legs and awkwardly bend down to get a drink from a water hole, leaving their neck vulnerable to attacks by lurking lions or crocodiles.

Fortunately for the giraffe, most of their water comes from the plants they eat, which means they only have to take a drink once every few days. Should a giraffe be attacked, it will fight back using powerful kicks of its dinner plate-sized hooves. Giraffes also have knobs called ossicones on their head for added protection (although this is primarily used when two male giraffes fight).

According to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF), “Ossifications on the head of male giraffe add weight, which often increases with age enabling them to deliver ever heavier blows during necking contests. Fatal combat is rare but does occur.”6

More Fascinating Facts About Baby Giraffes

Female giraffes have an approximately 15-month gestation period, after which she may give birth in a “calving ground.” In the wild, giraffes have been observed returning to their own place of birth to have their babies, known as calves. Upon birth, giraffe calves are already about 6 feet tall and may reach 12 feet by the age of 1 year.

While male calves often leave home to join all-male groups at about 15 months of age, female giraffes often stay near their mothers. “The female juveniles … often stay in the same herd as their mothers or if they do leave then do so about 18 months old and often stay in the same areas as the family herd they grew up in,” GCF notes.7

In the wild, it’s believed that giraffes can live to be 25 years or older but, as mentioned, they are most vulnerable when they’re young. Their mortality rate declines steeply in the first few years of life. While mortality rates may reach 60 percent by 1 year of age, this drops to just 8 percent by age 2 and 3 percent at age 3.

The biggest threat to giraffes beyond this age is humans, which hunt the animals for their meat, coat and tails. Habitat loss and fragmentation further threatens these graceful animals, which are believed to number under 100,000 in the wild, making them vulnerable to extinction.8

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