What comes to mind when you think of a giraffe? The first thing you likely think of about a giraffe is its long neck. Did you know that a newborn giraffe calf is born with a height of about 2 meters? That’s a big baby! About 4 years ago, scientists whipped out their research notebooks, and began comparing and contrasting the giraffe with its close cousin, the okapi, to help determine just why giraffes have such long necks.
The Okapi is a horse sized herbivore that is related to the giraffe but does not have the long neck or the super heart that giraffes have. What’s the story with the heart, and how does it relate to the long neck? A giraffe’s heart needs to pump blood all the way up to its brain; that requires an enlarged left ventricle and higher blood pressure. With such a difference in height and organ strength, how is the Okapi compared to the giraffe effectively?
According to scientists, these physical differences, and the fact that both animals are the only living members of the Giraffidae family, make the okapi a perfect screen to identify what is unique about a giraffe.
So, why do giraffes have such long necks? Based on evolutionary theory and in depth studies of the genes and DNA in giraffes and okapi, it seems that we now know the answer to this question. A small number of genes, 70 to be exact, over the past 11 or 12 million years have evolved to create the animal with the long neck that we know and love. As always, evolution seems to involve genetics adapting to environments.
Because the giraffe needs to be tall and have a long neck in order to move quickly, spot danger approaching, and find the tender leaves it needs to feed on, their DNA and genomes have adapted to make this a part of their molecular blueprint. The okapi, while similar in many areas, have not developed these same 70 genomes that make their cousins taller, and which allow them to survive with a super strong heart. Once it is all broken down, the okapi may have more in common with a horse or zebra than its cousin, the giraffe.
Not Just Zoo Exhibits
For many people in the world, the only way we will get to experience the amazing height and beauty of the giraffe is to visit a zoo. These graceful and unique mammals are much more than simply a zoo exhibit. They are the key to several scientific studies, and the answer to many questions raised about evolution, familial genetics, and adaptation. Highly detailed comparisons, tests, and observances recorded in scientific research notebooks will help scientists continue to understand and share the mysteries of the regal giraffe with the world.
So many young people simply see a unique animal without putting any thought into why or how that animal came to be. Thanks to scientists, even laypeople are now able to understand different aspects of genetics and evolution. These studies may awaken interest in young people and encourage them to pursue a scientific future. This is why every bit of scientific research is important, and will make a difference to the future of civilization and how we relate to and adapt along with the other species that we share the world with.