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What does a giraffe sound like?

Giraffe is my six-year-old's latest favourite stuffie. The other day, my daughter wanted to know what sound they made. I knew

Melman in the Madagascar franchise has a nasal whine while the Friendly Giant's pal Jerome spoke with more of a baritone. But what about real giraffes? I had no clue.

Sticking Their Necks Out

Even before looking into this further, I figured the renowned long neck of the giraffe must have something to do with what sounds it did or did not make. The most common explanation for the long neck (which has the same number of vertebrae as us) has to do with eating leaves beyond the reach of their competitors, although some have suggested they evolved as a way for males (which grow taller) to beat up other males and impress females. In any case, the up to 2.1 m long (as tall as Shaquille O'Neal) neck does have consequences for auditioning for Canadian Idol.

Sounds of Silence

Part of the reason I'd never heard what a giraffe sounds like is that they usually don't make any sound. But despite what some sources might say, giraffes do have a well developed larynx, which is located up at the head end of the neck.

Don't Forget to Breathe

You may have seen characters in cartoons use a long tube to breathe underwater. A problem with this set-up is the dead air you have to move. This can be something to consider when you buy a snorkel. Giraffes have narrower trachea than other big mammals which reduces the amount of dead air. They breathe slowly and have disproportionately large lungs to accommodate this dead air. A consequence of this is that they can only run for short periods before tiring. It may also mean they don't have a lot of extra air for making a lot of noise.

A Lot of Nerve

On top of all this, it has a recurrent laryngeal nerve that takes a crazy detour as part of its evolutionary legacy. You can see this in part of an amazing program Inside Nature's Giantsfeaturing a dissection of a giraffe. Richard Dawkins hints in his book on the evidence of evolution, The Greatest Show on Earth, that this might affect the giraffe's ability to control its sound-making. So the silence of the giraffes does not seem to be strategic like Teller the silent partner in Penn & Teller. It's something they have to deal with.

Ask for Help

The calves make low moans or bleats when they are hungry and mothers sometimes moo. Outside of this, however, giraffes find nonvocal ways to communicate.

Warn About Danger

Giraffes tend to move in herds to help defend against predators like lions. Obviously they have a good view. One suddenly turning its head and staring in one direction can tell the others of possible danger without needing to chat.

Minding Your Pees

During the mating season, the male nudges the female's behind to make her pee. He tastes the pee to see if she is ready to mate. Enough said.

So now I won't have to tell my daughter to be quiet, I can just ask her to act like a giraffe. Science is golden.

"But, what sound does a giraffe make?" check out our follow up video where one of our Science World staff visit the Greater Vancouver Zoo to once and for all find a definitive answer to the question!