The giraffe’s long neck : From evolutionary fable to whole organism

A LONE GIRAFFE BULL STOOD at the edge of the scrubby bush forest that opened into a grassland. It was August, the beginning of spring, but also the middle of the dry season in the southern African savannah. The grasses and forbs were yellowed and brittle. Many trees and bushes had no leaves, though some still bore fruit, and others were just beginning to flower. The giraffe didn’t seem bothered by our presence, although we were off the main tourist track. We were quite close and its towering height was striking. Long narrow legs carried its barrel-shaped, beautifully brown-and-white patterned body high above the ground. Its back sloped downward, extending into the tail with its long strands of wavy hair that nearly reached the ground. Towards the front the body took on more bulk and sloped steeply upward, merging into the massive, skyward-reaching neck. From its lofty perch, the giraffe watched us calmly with dark, bulging eyes. It was not excited, nor was it aggressive. When it turned its head to face us directly, we could see fine, out-curving eyelashes encircling attentive eyes. We observed the animal for a good while. It was feeding, but not on the leaves of trees and bushes, which we’d grown used to seeing giraffes eat. There were no trees or bushes within its reach, and its head was not lowered to the ground grazing. But it was chewing on a hearty meal, part of which was sticking out of its mouth. Imagine a giraffe smoking a giraffe-sized cigar and you get an inkling of the scene. The giraffe’s meal was a sausage tree fruit,1 which really does look like a sausage (or an over-sized cigar). Sausage trees hang full of them at this time of year. They are about one to two feet long, two to three inches in diameter, and can weigh up to twenty pounds. About six inches of the fruit were protruding, so the other foot or so was in the giraffe’s mouth cavity. Chewing with circling motions of the lower jaw, every now and again the giraffe would raise its head in line with its neck and gulp, as if trying to swallow the fruit. But the fruit never moved. We were concerned that it might be stuck, since, at the time, we didn’t know that giraffes do eat these fruits during the dry season. But the animal didn’t look concerned and was apparently in no rush; with a sausage fruit as its meal it didn’t need to wander around. I don’t know how long we were there, but eventually we moved on, wondering whether the giraffe succeeded in getting the long fruit through its long mouth and down into its long throat. Everything about the giraffe seems built around lengthening—from its tail hairs to its long eyelashes, from its long legs to its long neck and head. Coming across a giraffe embodying elongation to the fullest in eating that long fruit of a sausage tree, was an unexpected gift.

Last Updated
January 27, 2021
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