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Giraffes are weird and wonderful creatures that you can’t help but adore. They’re famed for their astonishing height, lanky necks, and brilliant patterns. But there’s more to these friendly giants than meets the eye at first glance.

One can discover dozens of fun facts about giraffes, from their exceptional eating patterns to their competitive rituals and outlandish birthing process. This article delves into one of the species’ most fascinating features; their curious tongues.

You may well have seen adorable pictures of a giraffe with its tongue out floating around the Internet. They look incredibly silly but cute as can be. And if you look closely, you’ll likely notice that their tongues are a little strange.

This article breaks down the reasons why, and explores everything you need to know about them.

So, let’s get into the most interesting facts and commonly asked questions!

How Long are Giraffe Tongues?

Giraffe eating using its long slimy tongue

Most people know giraffes for their extended legs and famously long necks. But not many people know about their exceptionally long tongues.

So how long is a giraffe’s tongue?

On average, they’re between 45 cm and 50 cm in length – that’s up to 5 times longer than the longest human tongues!

Why do giraffes have long tongues?

Giraffe’s lanky lickers aren’t just for show. Rather, they act as tools to help the animals get the food that they need.

A giraffe’s diet requires that they frequently munch leaves from the top of thorny trees. Their favourite varieties being acacias and mimosas. Doing so means reaching to the tippy-tops of the trees to find the lushest leaves, so a long tongue comes in handy to help them stretch.

Their tongues are prehensile, meaning they have the ability to grasp things. They use their clever tongues to pull leaves from the trees, as well as grab seeds, buds, and grass. So the extra length is also useful for aiding dexterity when finding and picking leaves among the thorns.

What Colour is a Giraffe’s Tongue?

Rothschild's giraffe licking its nostril with its tongue, Baringo, Kenya

Questions about the colour of giraffe tongues are adrift all over the web. And these questions show that people are rather muddled on the matter.

Why do giraffes have purple tongues?

Why are giraffe tongues black?

Why do giraffes have blue tongues?

So, you see the confusion. The truth is, none of these questions are wrong in their colour assumptions. Giraffe tongues come in a variety of colours, usually landing somewhere on a spectrum between dark blue, dark purple, and black.

But perhaps even more curiously, the dark colour doesn’t cover the entire tongue. Rather, the front half tends to be dark while the back half is a more familiar tongue-colour: pink.

But why are giraffes’ tongues black and other dark colours?

Naturally, you’ll be wondering why on Earth these creatures have such strangely coloured tongues.

Well, you certainly wouldn’t be the first to ask! Many scientists have grappled with this very question and concluded that, well, they’re not entirely sure. But they do have a strong theory.

The most likely explanation for the dark colour of giraffe tongues is that it exists to protect them from sunburn. Yep, sunburn, of all things.

Giraffes spend the majority of their waking life grazing, so their tongues see plenty of hot, African sun rays. And the last thing you want while trying to eat leaves from a thorny tree is a sunburnt tongue!

Their tongues are high in melanin, a pigment which protects against sun exposure. So they can happily chomp away to their heart’s content all through the day.

Tough Tongues

Giraffe feeding on Acacia whistling thorn, Ngorongoro Crater

Licking sharp thorns all day doesn’t sound like an enjoyable activity. Nevertheless, giraffes love snacking on their acacias and mimosas, despite the spikes.

The thorns don’t tend to be an issue for them, because their tongues have thickened papillae (the small bumps found on most tongues). This tough layer helps to protect their tongues from cuts and scrapes while they graze.

But their tongues have yet another trick up their sleeve, for added protection. Giraffe saliva has antiseptic properties. So even if they do cut or graze their tongue, it’s unlikely to become infected.

What’s more, the saliva is thick and sticky. It coats any swallowed thorns so that they leave the giraffe without causing damage to the digestive system.

Giraffe Tongues are Multi-Tools

Such a long and dextrous prehensile tongue comes in handy for more than just eating leaves.

Giraffes also routinely use their tongues to clean their ears! Surely not the tastiest process. But with their lack of Q-tips, they’re lucky to be able to keep them clean at all. 😉

Additionally, male giraffes use their tongues to help them select a suitable mating partner. Specifically, they use them to detect whether or not a female is in heat. So they’re even useful for making baby giraffes.

Without Their Special Tongues Giraffes Would Be Hungry

Giraffe on the edge of Ngorongoro Crater

So there you have it. All you need to know about the giraffe’s fascinating tongue.

Evolution invents curious ways to deal with the problems faced in the natural world. From their astonishing height and long necks to their spotted coats and wonderfully strange tongues. Giraffes are purpose-built for life in Africa’s savannas, grasslands, and woodlands.

If their tongues were any different, giraffes would be hungry, sore, and sunburnt, with ears full of wax. So thank goodness they’re as strange as they are.

If you’d like to see some giraffes in the wild with your own two eyes, you can arrange a tailor-made safari in Africa.