How Long Is A Giraffe's Tongue? How Does It Help Them Get Food?

Joan Agie
Nov 03, 2023 By Joan Agie
Originally Published on Mar 31, 2022
The answer to the question of how long is a giraffe's tongue is approximately 20 in (0.5 m).

The giraffe is known to be the tallest land animal on Earth.

The giraffe acquires this title due to its uniquely long neck. Even the calf of a giraffe is quite tall while standing in comparison to most people.

Giraffes are generally found living in different parts of Africa. While it is believed that giraffes are native to Africa, studies conducted on modern giraffes show that they might have originated in southern central Europe.

Giraffes move in a herd or a family which primarily consists of either female giraffes who are related to each other along with their offspring or adult bachelors.

An interesting feature of the giraffe is its tongue. The giraffe's tongue is not only long, but it also appears in dark colors such as dark blue, purple, or black. Read on to explore more about these features of giraffe tongues.

Why do giraffes have long tongues?

Being a tall animal implies that the diet and the body parts of the giraffe have to accommodate its long height. If giraffes have long necks, perhaps there are other parts of their body that are not outwardly visible that are also very large?

One of the body parts of the giraffe that is not visible and whose size is a question of curiosity is the giraffe tongue.

In addition to long necks and legs, giraffes also have long tongues. An adult giraffe's tongue is about half a meter in length. This long length of the tongue makes it an important tool in helping giraffes in the process of eating food. Giraffe tongues are much longer than most other mammals.

Giraffes hold the third position in having the longest tongue, with a length of up to 21.2 in (54 cm). The first position is held by the chameleon, while the second is held by the sun bear.

This unique feature of giraffes is based on their biology and habitat. The long tongue of the giraffe helps it to survive in the wild, where there is always competition for survival over food and water.

Why are giraffe tongues black and other dark colors?

In addition to the characteristic of giraffe tongues being long, they also have another distinctive feature of being dark in color. Giraffe tongues can be black, dark blue or purple. It can also be a dark color that is not really distinguishable in one particular shade.

There is always a curiosity as to why giraffes have dark-colored tongues. The answer lies in the eating habit of the giraffes.

Giraffes are known for eating for lengthy periods of time. According to scientific observations, a giraffe can spend up to 12 hours just eating. This, combined with the fact that giraffes use their tongue to get the leaves off of trees, means that the giraffe tongue could be exposed to the sun for extended periods of time.

Too much exposure to sunlight and its rays could be detrimental to the giraffe's tongue if it were light-colored, especially under the hot African sun. However, the dark color of a giraffe tongue provides protection to the muscle from otherwise potentially harmful sun rays.

The dark color of the giraffe tongue can be attributed to the pigment called melanin. Melanin is a pigment that is present on human skin too. The higher the density of melanin, the darker the skin will appear.

It is the same case for giraffes. A giraffe tongue contains a high amount of melanin, making the outer layer of cells on the giraffe's tongue appear very dark in color. The exact shade, whether complete black, purple, or dark blue, depends on the density of melanin.

A female giraffe gives birth while standing up.

What advantage does the giraffe's tongue give it?

The giraffe tongue is an important muscle in the giraffe's body that provides a lot of advantages to the animal. There are more distinct features of their tongues than just their color and length. Each of these features has a different function and help in keeping the giraffe properly fed.

Giraffes have what is called a prehensile tongue. A prehensile muscle is defined as a muscle that has the capability of grasping things. An animal with a prehensile muscle has control over the coordination of that muscle to perform tasks that require the act of grasping. Giraffes, in this way, have control over their tongues.

The prehensile tongue of the giraffe is similar to the prehensile tail of the monkey. They are similar in the sense that they are both used for grasping something. While the giraffe's prehensile tongue is utilized for grasping leaves to eat, the monkey uses its prehensile tail to hold onto a branch for balance or other similar actions.

In addition to a tongue, giraffes also have another prehensile muscle in their lips. The prehensile lips and tongues of the giraffes work together to gather leaves for consumption.

Since the long tongue is such an important muscle for giraffes, there are features that provide it with different elements of protection while it hunts and gets a hold of leaves from the trees.

One of these features is their dark color, while another one is their thick saliva. Some trees have leaves that are often surrounded by sharp thorns.

The leaves and thorns grow side by side on the branches of trees. While the tongue, with its long length, helps them to avoid the thorns, there are still chances of getting hurt by the sharp thorns.

This is where the thick saliva comes into use. The saliva creates a coat over the thorns that might get stuck on the tongues of the giraffe while they gather some leaves. There are also antiseptic properties in the saliva, which can help to health any cuts that are caused by thorns.

How The Giraffe Diet Impacts Their Tongues

Being the tallest animal species, giraffes have not only survived the constantly changing environment for several years, but they have also adapted themselves like many other animals to make the most out of the shifting nature. Giraffe species have adapted in many ways, and one of these adaptations revolves around their tongues.

In order to better adapt to the food giraffes like the most, their tongues have gone through an evolution. This evolution of the tongue took place in terms of its size, color, and shape.

You might then wonder what their favorite food is, for which the giraffes have gone through such changes to consume. It is acacia leaves, widely found across Africa.

The favorite choice of giraffes, acacia leaves, come from the acacia tree. An acacia tree is a tall tree that contains both leaves and thorns growing in an interspersed manner in between tree branches.

The lengthy tongue of giraffes has the capability to grasp acacia leaves from the tree while avoiding the thorns and then to bring the food to its mouth.

Giraffes are required to eat about 66.14 lb (30 kg) of acacia leaves in a day. This is why they take up to 12 hours to eat, as they are only able to bring a few leaves to their mouth in a single bite.

A curious question that still remains is why the leaves of acacia trees are a giraffe's favorite?

There are two distinct reasons behind acacia leaves being such a preferable food for a giraffe.

The first reason is that many animals do not enjoy acacia leaves because of the thorns, so there is an abundance of them. The second reason is that even if other animals didn't mind the thorns, they wouldn't be able to reach the leaves which grow on the high branches of acacia trees.

This means that there is almost no competition between giraffes and other animal species when it comes to finding acacia leaves.

With their long necks and tongues, giraffes are easily able to reach the leaves and bring them to their mouth to eat. Moreover, there is another benefit of acacia leaves for giraffes, in that acacia leaves have a high moisture content.

The leaves thus feed water to the giraffe that eats them. The water from this source makes up much of the daily requirement of water for the giraffe.

Giraffes find it difficult to drink water like many other animals because of their height. In order to drink water from a lake or another water body in the wild, the giraffe has to spread its legs while standing and also bend its neck all the way to the ground.

This position is not just uncomfortable for the giraffe, but it also makes it vulnerable in case a predator tries to attack it.

Did You Know...

Light plays an important role in making the giraffe's tongue look darker or lighter. It is possible that at one angle, the tongue may appear purple, while at another, it can appear dark blue or black. This is because of the amount of light hitting the muscle at that moment and the angle.

Male giraffes engage in a ritual called necking in order to establish their dominance in the wild. Giraffes make use of their long necks in the ritualistic fight to swing at and hit their opponent. The one who wins the fight gets to reproduce with the female of his choice.

Male giraffes do not participate in raising a newborn giraffe. That is a responsibility that falls under the sphere of the females. Interestingly, when the calf is born, it is unable to stand on its feet at first, but in just a few hours it can develop the ability to run around.

A group of giraffes is called a tower. Two or more groups of giraffes, or towers, might gather together and form a large family, or tower, of giraffes. Most of a giraffe's life is spent standing up and they are also known to give birth while standing.

Furthermore, giraffes also require a very small amount of sleep in order to function properly. They only need to sleep for about two hours a day.

Similar to human fingerprints, the spots on each giraffe are also unique. No two giraffes will ever have the same spot pattern.

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Written by Joan Agie

Bachelor of Science specializing in Human Anatomy

Joan Agie picture

Joan AgieBachelor of Science specializing in Human Anatomy

With 3+ years of research and content writing experience across several niches, especially on education, technology, and business topics. Joan holds a Bachelor’s degree in Human Anatomy from the Federal University of Technology, Akure, Nigeria, and has worked as a researcher and writer for organizations across Nigeria, the US, the UK, and Germany. Joan enjoys meditation, watching movies, and learning new languages in her free time.

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