Whether young or old, we humans have been enthralled with the amazing world of animals. We go to the zoo to see animals in person, we watch animals in their natural habitat on the television, we even watch action films like X-men where the human heroes have interesting mutations, most of which may well be based on animal adaptations. But what happens when we take the best of the best in animal adaptations and combine them into one animal? We get evolutionary mash-ups! These evolutionary mash-ups would have blown Charles Darwin’s mind! Join me as I take four unique animal adaptations and combine them into one beautiful, majestic, and dangerous beast.
The first animal adaptation in this month’s mash-up is the giraffe neck. Giraffes themselves have some very interesting adaptations they, as a species, have developed over a long period of time. This development of traits within a species is based upon many, many years of survival. The traits that give the species the best chance of surviving tends to be passed on to future generations, simply because those animals living long enough to reproduce carry the beneficial traits within their DNA. We call this evolutionary process ‘natural selection.’
So what traits have helped the giraffe survive as a species for so long? Their spotted patterns have served as camouflage helping them to blend in to the shadows of the African savanna. Giraffes are also very quiet communicators. They use a form of communication known as ‘infrasound’ to communicate. To do this, they force air through their long windpipes to create incredibly low-frequency sound waves. Humans and most other animals cannot hear this low-frequency sound wave. But the adaptation I would like to highlight in the mash-up this month is the long neck of the giraffe.
Look out Shaq, the giraffe is the tallest animal in the animal kingdom standing tall at 19 feet, with a neck that measures more than 7 feet tall. The idea of having a long neck is not new. The giraffe has had quite a few long-necked common ancestors and we have seen this same strategy for survival used in various dinosaurs species. Interestingly, the giraffe has the same number of vertebrae that a normal animal has. The difference comes in the length of each individual vertebrae. ‘Vertebrae’ refers to the set of bones which make up the backbone in animals. A giraffe’s vertebrae are much longer in comparison to other animal’s vertebrae.
From a survival stand point, having a long neck has helped the giraffe to forage in places most other herbivores could not reach. While the lower vegetation is being competitively eaten by smaller animals, the giraffe has plenty of vegetation at the tops of the trees. Thank goodness a giraffe doesn’t have much competition for the leaves at the tops of trees because they need all the greenery they can get to satisfy their energy requirements. It takes a lot of energy to support such a tall animal. Their long necks are not just useful for foraging, they also use their long necks for fighting. This fighting mostly occurs within the species, when male giraffes will fight for the rights to a female giraffe. They have reinforced skulls which they swing from their long necks creating a weapon similar to a club. Their skulls ram into opposing giraffes causing surprising amounts of damage, and even in extreme cases such blows have proven fatal to opposing giraffes.
The giraffe is definitely a survival expert with its incredibly advantageous height and long neck. But what other adaptations can we mix with the giraffe’s long neck to create such an amazing creature that David Attenborough can only dream of? Stay tuned for my next post when I add another unique animal adaptation to the mix.
*An aside on Natural Selection for beginners: Here’s a story to help illustrate natural selection. A particular bird has survived for many years by eating a snail known for its red color. The birds can easily spot the red snail and thus can get a fairly easy meal. But within this snail population, there are genes (sets of DNA/genetic coding) for a green colored snail. This green color eventually proves to be the advantageous trait for survival and the snail species develops into a primarily green colored snail… ok so natural selection is usually a lot more complicated process, but the idea is the same!
- Animal Encyclopedia. National Geographic.
If you read this whole blog post, you are my hero! Thanks for reading. Please feel free to leave me a comment and feedback below. Also, let me know if there is any particular science topic you would like me to look at “through green tinted glasses” and I will write about it.