Why Do Giraffes Have Black Tongues?

Discover why giraffes have black tongues and how these appendages help to maintain their health.

Mar 30, 2023By Donna Hobson
why giraffes have black tongues

It's not hard to understand why giraffes are one of the most popular animals in the world. Their majestic beauty is unique and captivating, and their gentle nature makes us love them even more. Imagine being the first to witness a giraffe roaming the African savannah - what a magnificent treat it would have been to discover this exotic creature.

Today we all know and recognize the giraffe, but there are still so many things we don't know about them. For example, did you know that their hair-covered horns are called ossicones? Or that they use these horns as weapons during fights? Learn more about these remarkable creatures as we explore part of a giraffe's anatomy and learn why their tongue is black (or blue, or purple).

What Color Is a Giraffe's Tongue?

giraffe licking out its tongue

Giraffe tongues are best described as black, blue, or purple. There is no definitive hue; it depends on the individual giraffe and the observer's perception. Still, one thing we can say for sure is that a giraffe's tongue is much darker (on top, at least) than a human tongue.

Over time, this tongue has evolved to help the giraffe enjoy its favorite food - the acacia tree leaves - by providing these gentle giants with a prehensile muscle that can reach up to half a meter in the air and strip nutritious leaves from thorny branches.

Giraffes aren't the only animals to have dark tongues. Several other animals share this characteristic, such as the okapi, chow-chow dog, and polar bear. But not all tongues are dark for the same reason. For example, the polar bear has black skin to help draw in heat and keep it warm in freezing temperatures. And this black skin extends to the tongue. However, we know this is not the case for giraffes because they possess tan skin that is not dissimilar to the color of their coats.

Why Do Giraffes Have Black Tongues?

giraffe licking out black tongue

Let's start by saying scientists have not yet gathered enough evidence to know why a giraffe's tongue is black. Still, several theories pose plausible suggestions as to the reasons for this coloration.

The most prominent is that this dark coloration helps prevent the giraffe's tongue from sun damage. A giraffe's main diet consists of leaves from the acacia tree, which are low in nutrition. In addition, only a few leaves are consumed in every mouthful. For these reasons, the giraffe can spend as many as 18 hours each day eating.

On a typical day, the giraffe can eat up to 30kg of acacia, and this consistent exposure to the sun could be harmful to a giraffe's tongue if not for the dark coloration.

The dark portion of the tongue possesses increased melanin, which is known for protecting against the sun's harmful rays. If you look closely, you'll see that only the front half of a giraffe's tongue is dark; further back, it changes to the pink hue we are more familiar with.

Why Are Giraffe Tongues So Long?

giraffe face eating with long tongue

A giraffe's tongue is around 45-50 cm long. One of the main reasons for this significant length is that a giraffe uses its tongue to pull acacia from the branches of trees. However, the leaves of the acacia trees are surrounded by spiky thorns, so the giraffe must use its tongue to separate the two.

Thankfully, the papillae (the raised areas of the tongue which contain the tastebuds) are thickened for protection, and scientists believe that thick saliva helps to protect the giraffe's tongue and mouth against the defense mechanisms of their favorite plant. And this thick saliva boasts antiseptic properties so that if the tongue does get injured, it can heal more quickly. Giraffes also use their long tongues for other activities, such as cleaning their ears or picking their nose.

What is a Prehensile Tongue?

giraffe eating leaves from acacia tree

The definition of prehensile is "capable of grasping." A giraffe's tongue is described as prehensile because they can use it to grasp things. In contrast, the human tongue might be the strongest muscle in the body, but we can't use it to pick things up as we would with our hands.

Similar appendages in the animal kingdom include the elephant's trunk or the monkey's tail. Interestingly, the giraffe also has prehensile lips, meaning they can use their entire mouths to manipulate the environment around them effectively.

Everything in the animal kingdom has a purpose; the same can be said for the giraffe's height and extended tongue. These physical characteristics allow them to reach tall plants that other animals cannot, so they don't have to compete for a plentiful food supply.

In addition, acacia leaves have a high moisture content, which provides the majority of hydration that a giraffe requires on a typical day. These impressive trees can source water from deep underground via long root systems to provide moisture in dry environments or drought conditions. Still, the acacia tree doesn't make it easy for an animal to consume its foliage, which is why the giraffe has developed so many unique characteristics over the years.

Donna Hobson
By Donna Hobson

Donna believes that keeping a pet is the key to a happy life. Over the years, many creatures have passed through her home - Sooty the cat, Millie the rabbit, Stuart (Little) the guinea pig, and Trixie the tortoise, alongside her pet goldfish, Zippy, who lived to the grand old age of 24 years! She currently resides with her black kitten Jinx and an aquarium full of fish and snails to entrance them both. When she is not looking after her pets, Donna enjoys researching and writing the answers to all your pet-related wonders.