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Tallest of all mammals, the giraffe attains a height of 5.5 m (18 ft) or more; with a comparatively short body and very long legs and neck. Many subspecies of this cud-chewing hoofed mammal (species Giraffa camelopardalis, family Giraffidae, order Artiodactyla) have been described, based on coat pattern and the size and number of horns. The back slopes downward to the hindquarters, and the neck, despite its length, contains only the seven vertebrae typical of most mammals. The tail is tufted, and there is a short mane on the neck. Two to four short, skin-covered horns are present in both sexes; there is a central swelling, between the eyes, which in northern giraffes is almost as long as the horns. The coat is pale buff, covered to a greater or lesser extent with reddish brown spots that range from regular and geometric in some forms to irregular and blotchy, or leaf-shaped, in others.
The giraffe lives in herds on savannas and in open bush country and is native to most of Africa south of the Sahara. It feeds primarily on acacia leaves. To reach the ground or to drink, it must bend or spread its forelegs. The gait of the giraffe is a pace (both legs on one side move together), and, because of its long stride, is swifter than it appears; about 48 km/h may be reached at a full gallop. One young is usually produced at a birth; gestation is about 14-15 months. The calf can follow its mother within one or two hours of its birth.
The giraffe has keen sight, smell, and hearing. Its voice is so rarely heard that the animal is popularly thought to be voiceless, but it is capable of producing low call notes and moans. Its principal predator, other than man, is the lion. The giraffe kicks with its heavy hooves to defend itself. Males fight by swinging their heads at one another. Still numerous in East Africa, where it is protected, the giraffe elsewhere has dwindled in number or has been exterminated because of hunting by man. ♣
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