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Tongue Length and Other Things You Should Know About Giraffes

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The proud papa isn’t able to pass out cigars, but there was still plenty of celebrating at the Cincinnati Zoo, where earlier this month a giraffe has been born for the first time in 26 years. Tessa, a four-year-old Maasai giraffe, delivered the calf at 9:40am on April 2, and 20 minutes later the tyke (who was later identified as a female, and whose name “Zuri" was selected via a Facebook contest) was tentatively balancing on her wobbly legs and nursing. Birthing a six-foot-tall baby with four sharp hooves sounds unbearably painful to any human who has demanded morphine seconds after her water has broken, but it’s just one of many inconveniences the world’s tallest animal has adapted to over the centuries.

Spot the Difference

Without access to the animal’s DNA, the second-best way to identify different types of giraffes is via the distinctive markings on their coats. There are nine recognized sub-species of giraffe, and for the most part each group keeps to themselves in specific geographic regions of Africa. However, Kenya has the unique distinction of being the only country that is home to three giraffe species – the Masai, the Reticulated and the Rothschild. Masai giraffes (left below) have irregular brown patches with jagged edges on a cream-colored background. Their Reticulated cousins (center) boast very clearly defined orangey-brown patches separated by bold white lines. And the Rothschild family (right) sports light, irregular patches (those less jagged than those of the Masai) on a white-to-buff background, with no markings below the knees.

Nature’s Support Hose

The giraffe is the world’s tallest animal, and as a result requires a lot of extra help to pump the blood all the way to its head. Their extra-large hearts weigh about 25 lbs. and pump fast enough to keep their central arterial blood pressure at 250 mmHg (compared to 100 mmHg in humans). Under normal conditions, that would result in a pressure of 400 mmHg in the legs (in simple terms: severely swollen ankles), but the giraffe has a secret weapon - the skin on its legs is extra thick and extremely tight-fitting, and it prevents the blood vessels from expanding and the blood from pooling. As they walk, their leg muscles help to vigorously pump the blood back upwards to the rest of the body.

In case you’ve wondered why giraffes don’t pass out from the head rush when they bend their heads down to drink, it’s because of the rete mirabile – a complex web of arteries, veins and valves that carefully regulate the blood flow to their noggins.

Gene Simmons Would Be Envious

The average giraffe’s tongue measures from 18 to 20 inches long. It’s also a blue-ish/purply color, but that’s not important right now. Despite the length of its neck, sometimes the tastiest acacia leaves (a staple of the giraffe diet) grow on the uppermost branches of the tree, so the giraffe needs those extra inches its prehensile tongue provides to reach up and grab those tender leaves, which provide not only nutrition but also much-needed moisture. The giraffe’s only natural predator is the lion, and the giraffe is most vulnerable to a lion ambush when it assumes the very awkward spread-legged position necessary to drink water from ground level. Eat enough moist acacia leaves and trips to the local watering hole are reduced proportionately.

Speaking of Tongues

[Image credit: Flickr user William Warby]

Some scientists postulate that the reason a giraffe’s tongue is a darkish color is to prevent sunburn, since it spends a large portion of the day outside of the animal’s mouth and exposed to the hot rays of the African sun. But evolutionary theories aside, scientists do agree that not only is the giraffe’s tongue extraordinarily “tough” – that is, it sustains surprisingly few cuts from the thorns found on acacia branches – it is also protected from infection from the few abrasions it does sustain by some very thick, very antiseptic saliva. That same saliva coats the thorns so thoroughly that they exit the animal in their original form, with no harm done to the digestive tract. Giraffes also capitalize on the antiseptic and prehensile qualities of their tongues by using them to (yech!) routinely clean their ears.

Up Close and Personal

Can an 18 foot tall animal equipped with a lethal kick be considered “cuddly”? Ask anyone who has stayed at Kenya’s Giraffe Manor, a small hotel located just outside of Nairobi. The Manor was originally constructed in 1932 as a hunting lodge by an heir to the Mackintosh Toffee fortune. The property was sold to Betty Leslie-Melville and her husband in 1974, and shortly after their purchase the Leslie-Melvilles found out that the few remaining Rothschild giraffes were in danger of being exterminated thanks to the sale of the animals’ sole habitat by the Kenyan government to a private real estate company. The Leslie-Melvilles, who already had three Rothschild giraffes roaming on their property, agreed to “adopt” two other giraffes who were slated for slaughter. In 1983 the family refurbished the lodge and re-opened it as a hotel. Since that time Giraffe Manor has worked with several wildlife groups in the breeding of Rothschild giraffes and re-introducing them into the wild to expand the gene pool. They fund their efforts via the hotel guests who willingly share their breakfasts with the Manor’s giraffes who quickly learned the meal schedule and are always sure to stick their necks in through a window to beg a tidbit.

Giraffe Manor is still operating today in case you’re ever in the vicinity; some of the celebrities who’ve noshed with the long-necked over the years include Johnny Carson, Mick Jagger, Brooke Shields and Walter Cronkite.

Life is Harsh: Lesson One

Giraffe birth appears to the human eye to be somewhat abrupt and austere. The reality of the situation does seem rather brutal: Mama’s hind legs are about seven feet tall. She does not lie down and curl up when those first contractions hit, but rather she stays upright and expels the baby from a standing position. Luckily, in the giraffe’s natural habitat, there is a ground covering of sand and some random flora to cushion baby’s first free-fall. In captivity, zoologists prepare a cushy sand bed when a cow (female giraffe) is ready to deliver. No matter what the locale, baby G’s introduction to the world comes as a rude awakening – a head-first PLOP onto the ground followed by a sharp hoof to the belly from Mama to stimulate movement. Even in the protective confines of a zoo or wildlife preserve, Nature still prods the mother giraffe to get her baby on its feet as soon as possible, lest there be predators nearby. Here's a graphic illustration of the giraffe birth process (but be forewarned that it is bodily fluid-intensive):

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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