What Made the Giraffe Decide to be Tall?

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SWBAT explain that any given physical or behavioral characteristic has advantages and disadvantages.

Big Idea

Sometimes, the same species traits that provide an animal with some advantages in its environment can simultaneously put the animal at a disadvantage.


10 minutes

When presented with something as obvious as the height of a giraffe, most children can recognize that this animal is born this way and it does not choose to be tall, but this line is easily blurred. Children frequently say things such as, "Why does the bird want to sing that song?"  "What made the butterfly decide to have such pretty colors?" and  "Why do the frogs like to jump?"  These statements are based both in our tendency to anthropomorphize animals and also from the mistaken belief that animals make choices about certain behaviors and physical traits in the same way that we choose how to dress or whether or not to exercise.

I ask students to jot down their thoughts about the purpose of a giraffe's long neck.  If they assume it's for reaching leaves high up on trees, they are in good company.  Darwin thought the same thing, and many resources out there still cite this as the primary purpose of the long neck.  It is not.



30 minutes

I have students partner read the Reticulated Giraffe Reading Passage and provide them with this reticulated giraffe organizer to keep their note-taking focused on physical characteristics, adaptations to environment, behavioral response to environment, and group behavior.

After they have read the article and filled out the organizer, I give them the option of drawing a giraffe and labeling it with the key details gleaned from their reading or writing/typing a paragraph summarizing these key details.

If your students request additional reading information, here is a passage on giraffes on the National Geographic website.  This children's article, Standing Tall, can be found  on the Giraffe Conservation Foundation website.  The giraffe page from the San Diego Zoo contains quality information but is densely packed so I recommend it for more proficient readers.

Finally, here is an article from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN on the status of giraffes that you may wish to read and discuss with your class: Giraffes May Be Headed For Extinction.




1 minutes

Students create a drawing of one of the giraffe species and label it with key details from the reading passage.  I let them spend a bit of time making the first several splotches accurately but then let them know that the rest of the drawing and coloring can be completed when they have finished other class assignments or at home.  The part they need to focus on in class first is the written information about the following:

How do the different physical features of giraffes help them survive in their environment?

-legs, neck, patterning, long tongue, tough lips

How does the giraffe adapt to changing environmental conditions?  

-response to the dry season is to change diet

-only able to respond to a certain point, giraffe in enclosed preserves are decimating the acacia trees, which will hasten their demise

How does the giraffe exist within a group?

-let young be taken care of by all

-group changes size and composition w/out any patterns

-spend time near each other, warn from predators, and also may derive emotional benefit from proximity

The goal here is for students to be able to take the information from their organizer and use it effectively within their labeled illustration.  


15 minutes

I show students the first 3 minutes of this video on white giraffe in Niger and ask them to observe the white giraffe and think about what the purpose of the long neck might be.  If they listen carefully, they will also hear how the length of a giraffe's neck gives them an advantage in that they can reach food that isn't grazed by other ungulates.  I ask them to turn and talk to a partner about physical characteristics of the giraffe that are distinctive.  In addition to the long neck, they will hopefully note the long leg (good for running longer distances and for short bursts of speed) and the patterns (camouflage).  (Note - I have not previewed the entire video for appropriateness, and be sure not to let them comments underneath display).  This is a 22 second clip with no narration, but it does show a giraffe eating from the top of an acaia tree.

Here is a 1 minute video with no violence in which a mother giraffe successfully protects her baby from lions by kicking threateningly in their direction.  (Again, watch out for video links that will pop up.  They are inappropriate). 

This giraffe cam provides an opportunity for a virtual field trip.  Students can practice observation skills and basic research as they check in on the giraffe daily.  This can be done as rotating morning work, enrichment work, homework, or part of a daily writing or science routine!