Do you know the sound a giraffe makes?
Perhaps a grunt like their camel cousins? Maybe something similar to horse?
Ask any friend or family member and they will give you a different answer. Go on, try finding out. It’s a funny game to play at any party, because even people who have been on many safaris are unable to simulate a giraffe sound.
Why? I won’t tell you just yet, because that would give away the giraffe secret.
I only know the sound a giraffe makes because I spent an entire week in Serengeti National Park, following the long-necked giants with my audio recorder.
Intrigued? Here’s the story.
A Quest for Giraffe Sounds
I come from a family who are politely considered vertically challenged (or usually just short arses when we’re not in earshot). So at an animal themed dress-up party my natural choice was a giraffe.
Before masquerading as a giant four-legged mammal I watched various giraffe-related wildlife documentaries. Unfortunately, the giraffe was always on mute, replaced by the soothing sounds of David Attenborough’s narration.
At the party I made up a different giraffe sound for every person I met. At times I sounded like a constipated whale, a deranged kitten, a confused cow, or a horse on steroids. Amazingly, everyone believed that this was the sound a giraffe makes.
Following the party I tested a hypothesis. I asked all my friends what sound does a giraffe make. Every response was different, from baritone camel grunts to slurping baby noises. I was even told that giraffe sound like a hiccuping horse crossed with a wallowing pig.
Searching for Giraffe Sounds on the Serengeti
The wildlife truth can never be found in a zoo so I set my eyes on the Serengeti. There I would find the great wildebeest migration, and, along the way, record the sounds of giraffe. I even purchased a handheld audio recorder for the journey.
Unfortunately, I was on a strict budget and the tour guide was useless. We broke down besides a pride of lions which cost one day. The following day the guide was so lost in his phone he almost trampled a giraffe tower.
The world’s tallest animals turned slowly and silently, giving me a stare of utter contempt before loping off into the trees. It felt like when I was a child and had done something wrong. For minor indiscretions I would take an earful from my mother, but I was always in big trouble when she didn’t say a word.
The Serengeti is an enormous place and vehicles must stay on the trails. Giraffe were always visible upon the horizon. Every evening their poetic frames turned to silhouette against the setting sun. Maybe I was paranoid but it seemed that the giants were watching me with suspicion. And I just couldn’t get close enough to hear them.
Unable to get close enough I started asking different guides, but the answers came in similes and maybes. Every single guide made up a different sound, from clicks to chomps to question marks.
What Sound Does a Giraffe Really Make?
Then I found out. A dazzling giraffe crossed the trail in front of me and met my eye. To this day I am certain that this giraffe winked at me (although one week in the Serengeti wilderness did detach me from everyday reality).
In that single glance I knew. I had my confirmation from an old Masai tribesman in Ngorongoro a few hours later. This was his reply to my question, what sound does a giraffe make.
“I’ve been here for over 70 rains and I have never heard a giraffe. Giraffe, my friend, are silent animals.”
Quite apart from the brilliant fact that he counted his age by the number of rainy seasons, the answer was so obvious I felt stupid. Of all the giraffe sounds I had made and heard from others, the simple truth was something else: silence.
Why Do Giraffe Not Make a Sound?
It’s now ten years since I dressed as a giraffe and eight years since I first visited the Serengeti. I have followed giraffe sounds with keen interest.
Note, it is true that giraffe very occasionally make a short snort or grunt, possibly when threatened. Yet this sound is more like a human hiccup or burp, an involuntary sound that can pop out when the body is shocked. Nobody had ever provided evidence that giraffe make vocalizations as a means of communication.
Until 2015, it was universally agreed that giraffe really are silent animals. But there was no definitive answer to why these giants are silent.
Their Neck is Too Long
The common scientific explanation for giraffe silence is to blame it all on those enormous necks. Giraffe are proven to have a voice box (or larynx) so they could make a sound.
But…for any mammal to make noise they must pass air through their vocal cords, thus making them vibrate. That’s easy for us, but a little challenging when the air must first travel down a four-metre long windpipe (trachea).
But I always have the same question: if giraffe can inhale air into their lungs, why can’t they inhale air into their voice box?
Their Sounds are Too Low for Humans to Hear
Another popular explanation is that giraffe do actually make sounds, but we can’t hear them. Low-frequency noises are common in many animals, including the big cats.
As well as their orchestral horns and trumpets, elephants make low-pitched infrasound that are far below the range of human ears. These can travel up to ten kilometres across the savannah.
Elephants are big and so are giraffe. And two plus two equals the popular hypothesis that giraffe also communicate with infrasound. One possibility is that, like elephants, giraffe have very large vocal folds in their voice box. Pushing air through them at a very slow rate creates the inaudible infrasound.
Giraffe Do Actually Make a Sound
Then came a 2015 research paper by specialists from the University of Vienna. They recorded giraffe in three zoos over more than eight years, in an exercise qualified as “tedious, challenging and time consuming.”
Not only did they listen to 938 hours of virtual silence, they analysed the frequency of giraffe sound waves. Even when they had recorded an audible giraffe sound, the zookeepers still didn’t believe them.
These researchers concluded that the giraffe they studied make a humming sound at night. This is not actually an infrasound, but on the very edge of what a human can hear.
I listened to some of the recordings and they sounded familiar. These ultra low grunts are a little like sonorous, low-pitched snoring. In other words, just like my own snoring I recorded on the SnoreLab app!
Why these giraffe sounds? And why only at night? Giraffe have terrible eyesight so the researchers suggested that maybe they are a means of communicating location in the dark. That doesn’t add up, given these giraffe were in a zoo, have nowhere to go, and no predators.
The conclusion of the study was that further investigation is required. So even the world specialists in giraffe sounds are not definitive about the sound a giraffe makes.
The Serene Giants of the Animal Kingdom
I personally prefer another explanation. Giraffe could communicate, but they just choose not to.
Some animals like to show off. Leopards roar and elephants make extravagant sounds to ward off rivals. Small animals communicate threats and even a rhino mother has a specific sound to warn her offspring.
But when you are so big and conspicuous, giraffe don’t need to make sounds for these reasons. They are beautiful creatures, perhaps the most elegant of all the animals out on the savannah.
So maybe giraffe prefer tranquility over noise? Perhaps giraffe simply have no need to make any sound or interrupt the beautiful serenity of the wild.
After my first visit to the Serengeti I’ve been fortunate to go on dozens more safaris, all across the continent. Initially these safaris were all about adventure. By now I think of safaris from the giraffe perspective.
An African safari is not only an adventure. It is also a wonderful escape from the world, a chance to enjoy silence and tranquility, when most of our everyday lives are dominated by noise.
For me, safari is no longer an adventure. It is a chance to be like a giraffe, a silent and content observer of a world that is fast disappearing.