Winning by a neck: tall giraffes avoid competing with shorter browsers

Am Nat. 2007 Jan;169(1):130-5. doi: 10.1086/509940. Epub 2006 Dec 4.


With their vertically elongated body form, giraffes generally feed above the level of other browsers within the savanna browsing guild, despite having access to foliage at lower levels. They ingest more leaf mass per bite when foraging high in the tree, perhaps because smaller, more selective browsers deplete shoots at lower levels or because trees differentially allocate resources to promote shoot growth in the upper canopy. We erected exclosures around individual Acacia nigrescens trees in the greater Kruger ecosystem, South Africa. After a complete growing season, we found no differences in leaf biomass per shoot across height zones in excluded trees but significant differences in control trees. We conclude that giraffes preferentially browse at high levels in the canopy to avoid competition with smaller browsers. Our findings are analogous with those from studies of grazing guilds and demonstrate that resource partitioning can be driven by competition when smaller foragers displace larger foragers from shared resources. This provides the first experimental support for the classic evolutionary hypothesis that vertical elongation of the giraffe body is an outcome of competition within the browsing ungulate guild.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acacia / growth & development
  • Animals
  • Feeding Behavior / physiology*
  • Neck / anatomy & histology*
  • Plant Leaves / growth & development
  • Ruminants / anatomy & histology*
  • Ruminants / physiology*
  • South Africa