Unveiling the Mystery: The Surprising Reason Behind Giraffes' Black Tongues


Jan. 26 2024, Published 3:23 p.m. ET

A giraffe sticking out its black tongue.
Source: iStock

Giraffes are majestic creatures known for their towering long necks and distinctive spotted coats. They gracefully travel the African plains, grazing on leaves high in the trees.

Article continues below advertisement

When a giraffe eats, they use a lengthy black tongue to grasp leaves and put them in their mouth. Similar to an elephant’s trunk, a giraffe’s tongue is prehensile, meaning it can grab on things, like leaves and branches, per the Cleveland Zoological Society.

But why are giraffes' tongues black? Let's pull back the curtain on one of the animal kingdom's most interesting features.

A giraffe using its tongue to get an apple.
Source: Getty Images
Article continues below advertisement

Why are giraffes' tongues black?

Giraffes' tongues are black for an important reason: to protect them from the sun's harsh rays, per ZME Science. While the giraffe's tongue may look black, it is more dark purple or blue. The dark pigmentation of a giraffe's tongue is due to a high amount of melanin.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, melanin is pigmentation that can absorb ultraviolet rays and protect against sun damage.

If a giraffe were grazing on the ground, they wouldn't need to protect their tongue from the sun. The base of the giraffe tongue is pink, like most other mammals, because it is further back in their mouth and at less risk of sun exposure. However, a large part of the giraffe's tongue is more prone to sun exposure as they reach the tall trees to eat.

Article continues below advertisement
A giraffe using its tongue to reach tree leaves.
Source: Getty Images

Part of the reason sun exposure is such an issue is because giraffes eat quite a lot! According to the San Diego Zoo, giraffes have the capacity to consume as much as 75 pounds (34 kilograms) of food daily. They eat almost all day long because they usually only get a few leaves with each bite.

Article continues below advertisement

Why are giraffe tongues so long?

A giraffe’s eating habits also factor into why their tongues are so long. The giraffe has one of the longest tongues in the animal world. Their tongues can reach as long as 18 to 20 inches, per the San Diego Zoo.

If you want a comparison as proof of how long a giraffe’s tongue is, the average human tongue is about 3.3 inches long, per Healthline. The giraffe’s long tongue comes in handy when trying to reach the tastiest leaves at the top of the tree. Giraffes prefer to eat the leaves of acacia trees, which can reach up to 20 to 40 feet, but giraffes are typically between 15 feet and 18 feet in height, so they need that extra length!

Article continues below advertisement

The branches of acacia trees are also riddled with thorns. Thankfully, the giraffe's long, prehensile tongue can maneuver around the thorns. Their tongue is further protected by a rough muscular layer as well as a thick gooey saliva that also acts as an antiseptic, per ZME Science.

So the next time you watch a program about giraffes on TV, or if you are lucky enough to see a giraffe in the wild, pay attention to how the giraffe eats, and you’ll see firsthand how they use their tongues. It is one of many things that make these animals truly remarkable.

More from Green Matters

Latest Big Impact News and Updates

    Opt-out of personalized ads

    © Copyright 2024 Green Matters. Green Matters is a registered trademark. All Rights Reserved. People may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.