Giraffes Are Elephants, Too

“Giraffes are the ‘forgotten megafauna,’ said... a giraffe researcher. ‘[T]here’s been a massive paucity of information about giraffes.’ Now all that is changing fast, as a growing cadre of researchers seek to understand the spectacular biology and surprisingly complex behavior of [giraffes]. Scientists have lately discovered that giraffes are not the social dullards or indifferent parents they were reputed to be, but instead have much in common with another charismatic mega-herbivore, the famously gregarious elephant.” – The New York Times, October 5, 2014

If you’re anything like me, then you don’t think a lot of, or even about, giraffes. You pay them no heed as much because they’re exceptionally quiet and exceedingly boring as because they’re the tallest animals on earth and one of the most beautiful. But is it possible that we tend to disregard these stately creatures of understated grandeur because we don’t know them as well as we think we do... or rather because they simply are not elephants, who are awesome in every way? Well, prepare to be surprised and shamed, because it turns out that we really do not know very much about giraffes, and, as it happens, they are much more like elephants that we’ve ever suspected. Much, much more!

Let’s start with the obvious—or, what should have been obvious, yet what we’ve somehow overlooked for centuries: Physically, giraffes and elephants are significantly more similar than dissimilar. Both animals have four legs, a head, and a tail. Giraffes and elephants have the following (in alphabetical order) in common, too: bones, a four-chambered heart, skin, teeth, and an elongated trunk, the creatures’ most important and versatile appendage, containing as many as 150,000 separate muscles and used for a variety of functions, including breathing, olfaction, touching, grasping, and sound production. Giraffes’ and elephants’ trunks can be used to lift as much as 350 kilograms, but also for such delicate tasks as wiping an eye (both giraffes and elephants have eyes) or cracking the shell of a peanut—a favorite snack of both creatures!

In addition, something we’ve only very recently discovered is that giraffes as well as elephants have large ivory tusks—which both animals have historically used to dig for water, salt, and roots, to debark or mark trees, to move trees and branches when clearing a path, and, when fighting, to attack, defend, and protect the trunk. Yet, while an elephant’s tusks must be taken from it by force (all too often leading to the tragic death of the majestic creature), a giraffe will voluntarily turn over its tusks to anyone who asks. Ivory merchants based in giraffes’ natural habitats, therefore, have been politely requesting giraffes’ tusks for a long time, longer certainly than scientists have been studying giraffes. And because no giraffe was ever born in captivity until just this year, we had no way of knowing about giraffe tusks until now.

There are even meaningful parallels along gender lines. Female elephants are famous for spending their entire lives in tight-knit matrilineal family groups, some comprising more than ten members that might include three pairs of mothers with offspring, led by a matriarch. Now female giraffes have been found to form close friendships with one another that can last for years, and mother giraffes have displayed signs of persistent grief after losing their calves to lions. In layman’s terms: Lady giraffes and lady elephants are deeply empathetic creatures. Similarly, both male elephants and male giraffes spend a lot of time trying to mate with female elephants and female giraffes, respectively, which makes them unique in the animal kingdom.

The possibility that elephants and giraffes are essentially the same animal—possibly even only different species within the same taxonomic family—has been something of a giraffe in the room, as it were, among scientists for some time, only recently acknowledged. But regular people might have been wiser to this fact. Indeed, for every cultural reference to an elephant, there is an analogous reference to a giraffe! For instance, history tells us that the kings of Siam used to make gifts of white elephants to courtiers who had rendered themselves obnoxious, in order to ruin the recipients with the cost of maintaining the creatures. (In modern usage, a “white elephant” is an object, scheme, business venture, facility, or other thing considered without use or value.) Likewise, the queens of Siam at the same time would give black giraffes to those who had offended them, and the recipients would trip over the creatures at night, often suffering grievous bodily injury, or at least embarrassment, as a result. (In modern usage, a “black giraffe” is a stumbling block, an obstacle, a fly in the ointment.)

Even so-called elephant jokes (“What time is it when an elephant sits on your fence?”) will still make complete sense and remain hilarious when reworked to include a giraffe (“What time is it when an elephant sits on your giraffe?”). And there can be little question that if the very popular 1941 animated film Dumbo had featured a baby giraffe instead of a baby elephant the plot could have remained exactly the same.

And, finally, there are these facts:

Read more about giraffes here!

Matthew David Brozik wrote this and many other short humor pieces, which have been published in print and online by The New Yorker, Adult Swim, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Grin & Tonic, The Big Jewel, and no one.

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