Some biologists suggest the modern giraffes descended from G. jumae; others find G. gracilis a more likely candidate. G. jumae was larger and more heavily built while G. gracilis was smaller and more lightly built. The main driver for the evolution of the giraffes is believed to have been the changes from extensive forests to more open habitats, which began 8 mya. During this time, tropical plants disappeared and were replaced by arid C4 plants, and a dry savannah emerged across eastern and northern Africa and western India. Some researchers have hypothesised that this new habitat coupled with a different diet, including acacia species, may have exposed giraffe ancestors to toxins that caused higher mutation rates and a higher rate of evolution. The coat patterns of modern giraffes may also have coincided with these habitat changes. Asian giraffes are hypothesised to have had more okapi-like colourations.
The IUCN currently recognises only one species of giraffe with nine subspecies.
The giraffe has intrigued various cultures, both ancient and modern, for its peculiar appearance, and has often been featured in paintings, books, and cartoons.
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Bohlinia entered China and northern India in response to climate change. From there, the genus Giraffa evolved and, around 7 mya, entered Africa. Further climate changes caused the extinction of the Asian giraffes, while the African giraffes survived and radiated into several new species. Living giraffes appear to have arisen around 1 mya in eastern Africa during the Pleistocene.
Dominant males gain mating access to females, which bear the sole responsibility for raising the young.
The giraffe's chief distinguishing characteristics are its extremely long neck and legs, its horn-like ossicones, and its distinctive coat patterns. It is classified under the family Giraffidae, along with its closest extant relative, the okapi. Its scattered range extends from Chad in the north to South Africa in the south, and from Niger in the west to Somalia in the east. Giraffes usually inhabit savannahs and woodlands. Their food source is leaves, fruits and flowers of woody plants, primarily acacia species, which they browse at heights most other herbivores cannot reach. They may be preyed on by lions, leopards, spotted hyenas and African wild dogs. Giraffes live in herds of related females and their offspring, or bachelor herds of unrelated adult males, but are gregarious and may gather in large aggregations. Males establish social hierarchies through "necking", which are combat bouts where the neck is used as a weapon.
It is classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as Vulnerable to extinction, and has been extirpated from many parts of its former range. Giraffes are still found in numerous national parks and game reserves but estimations as of 2016 indicate that there are approximately 97,500 members of Giraffa in the wild, with around 1,144 in captivity.