Can giraffes swim?

Could the tallest land mammal manage to swim?

Four giraffes drinking from the Zambezi River © Yolanda Van Niekirk

I have never seen a giraffe swimming, and I’m not sure that anyone has.

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Until recently it was widely assumed that a giraffe’s long, spindly legs would not provide sufficient purchase in water to support its neck, and that the proportion of its elongated extremities to its short body would reduce buoyancy.

Therefore the giraffe was supposedly the only mammal in the world that could not swim (indeed, the authoritative Handbook of the Mammals of the World states bluntly that it cannot).

But this is probably wrong. A 2010 study in the Journal of Theoretical Biology used a complex digital model to prove that the average adult giraffe would, in fact, become buoyant in 2.8m of water.

Admittedly its heavy front legs would tip the animal forward, so to keep its head clear it would need to crank its neck backwards at an awkward angle, while the legs, swept to the rear, would have limited power.

On land a giraffe maintains balance using a unique gait, moving its left legs then its right, but this would be less effective in water.

All in all, the animal’s forward movement would be minimal. The answer, then, is that giraffes can do it, but very badly. Deep wading, yes, but swimming only in extremis.

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