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What is special about a giraffe’s tongue?

A giraffe’s tongue has several special adaptations that help it survive in its environment. Here are some key facts about the giraffe tongue:

– It can be up to 20 inches long
– It is dark bluish-black in color to prevent sunburn
– It is tough and coarse to help strip leaves off branches
– The tip is prehensile and can grab foliage
– It has thickened papillae to protect it from thorns
– It is highly dextrous and mobile due to being anchored at the back

Giraffes are the tallest land mammals in the world, with even newborn calves standing over 6 feet tall. Their most remarkable feature is their extremely long neck, which can account for nearly half of a giraffe’s vertical height. This allows them to reach leaves and shoots near the tops of trees that shorter herbivores cannot access.

However, the giraffe tongue is equally remarkable and an essential tool that allows them to utilize their great height for feeding. Their 21-40 inch long tongues are specialized to help them efficiently pull leaves and shoots into their mouths. Here is a more in-depth look at the special adaptations of the giraffe’s tongue.

Anatomy of the Giraffe Tongue

The giraffe tongue consists of several parts that work together to give it its unique properties:

Muscle Structure

– Thick muscle running down length of tongue
– Allows curling and extension of tongue
– Anchor point is far back in mouth/throat


– Thick conical bumps cover top surface
– Act as armor to protect tongue
– Help grip food


– Deep purplish-black pigmentation
– Protects tongue from sunburn

Salivary glands

– Located under tongue
– Keep tongue lubricated

Part Description
Muscle structure Thick muscle running down length of tongue allows curling and extension
Papillae Thick conical bumps cover surface; act as armor and help grip food
Color Deep purplish-black pigmentation protects tongue from sunburn
Salivary glands Located under tongue to keep it lubricated

This specialized structure allows the giraffe tongue to efficiently pull leaves and shoots into its mouth from tall branches. Next we’ll look at how the tongue’s adaptations help it perform its functions.

Functions and Behaviors

The giraffe tongue has several important functions related to feeding:

Grasping and pulling foliage

– Prehensile tip can wrap around leaves and shoots
– Saliva helps adhesion
– Pulls vegetation into mouth

Stripping leaves from stems

– Stiff structure allows pressing against branches
– Coarse papillae help scrape leaves off

Food manipulation

– Able to move tongue around mouth while chewing
– Positions food between teeth

Thorn protection

– Thick papillae provide armor against thorns
– Tough structure avoids cuts


– Dark color limits moisture loss
– Salivary glands keep tongue lubricated

Function Description
Grasping foliage Prehensile tip wraps around leaves to pull into mouth
Stripping leaves Stiff structure presses against branches; coarse papillae scrape leaves
Food manipulation Able to move tongue around mouth while chewing
Thorn protection Thick papillae act as armor; tough structure avoids cuts
Hydration Dark color limits moisture loss; salivary glands provide lubrication

These behaviors allow the giraffe to efficiently feed from tall branches other herbivores can’t access. The tongue is essential to their ability to survive on a diet of tree leaves and shoots.

Feeding Strategy

The giraffe uses its unique tongue to enable a feeding strategy focused on the tops of acacia and other trees:

Reach advantage

– High vantage point with long neck
– Allows access to tree canopies other animals can’t reach

Powerful tongue extension

– Muscle structure allows rapid extension up to 20 inches
– Quickly reaches foliage the mouth cannot

Prehensile grasping

– Mobile tip can wrap around leaves and shoots
– Securely grips vegetation to pull into mouth

Food preparation

– Manipulates and positions vegetation while chewing
– Coarse surface helps strip leaves from tough branches

Strategy Role of Tongue
Reach advantage Allows accessing high foliage
Powerful extension Muscles allow rapid extension up to 20 inches
Prehensile grasping Mobile tip wraps around and grips vegetation
Food preparation Manipulates and strips leaves while chewing

This gives giraffes exclusive access to an abundant, nutritious food source other browsers cannot exploit. The combination of height and tongue structure opens a niche that helps giraffes thrive in African savanna and woodland ecosystems.

Interesting Facts

In addition to its important adaptations, the giraffe tongue has some surprising and fascinating facts:

– Giraffes have no upper front teeth, only a hard palate they use to break down food before swallowing. The tongue helps move food around the mouth for chewing.

– Giraffes have very tough lips to protect their mouths from thorns while browsing. The lips may also be purplish-black for sun protection.

– A giraffe’s tongue is tough enough to prune thorny acacia trees without being punctured. Thick papillae provide armor and its thick saliva acts as antiseptic.

– When not in use, the tongue is kept folded up in the mouth and stored in a sheath opening behind the lower incisors.

– Giraffes have a cluster of veins at the base of the brain called the carotid rete, which helps regulate blood flow to the brain when the head is lowered. This prevents sudden drops in blood pressure when they bend down to drink.

– A giraffe heart weighs over 25 pounds and pumps about 16 gallons of blood per minute, keeping their tongue and brain hydrated.


The giraffe tongue has a number of specializations that allow these iconic African mammals to exploit a niche feeding strategy focused on tree tops. Its remarkable length, muscular structure, prehensile tip, armored surface, and dark color all enable it to efficiently feed on leaves, shoots, and buds inaccessible to shorter browsers. This gives the giraffe exclusive access to the abundant nutrients in the canopies of their savanna and woodland ecosystem. When combined with the giraffe’s towering height, the versatile tongue is the key adaptation that underpins their unusual feeding behavior and evolutionary success. Its unique design shows the power of natural selection in shaping anatomical structures to help animals survive in their environment.