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The giraffe's name comes from Arabic and means "fast walker." With his 6-foot-long legs, he ambles along at about 10 miles per hour, but when he gallops he shifts into overdrive. He's not the speediest runner or the most enduring, but he has some advantages that help him avoid his enemies.
The giraffe has only two gaits: pacing (moving both legs on the same side at the same time, like the camel) and galloping. When he goes into high gear, his front legs do the pushing while the back legs reach forward on the outside of the front legs. His head and neck move forward and back, pushing out with the front legs and rising almost straight up with the back legs, as a counterweight. He's the only mammal on Earth that uses his body this way.
This unique style of locomotion lets him float along looking like he's in slow motion while achieving something like 35 miles an hour at maximum effort. The giraffe can cruise at about 30 mph for a couple of miles. However, scientists doing research on giraffes in the wild have learned not to chase a big giraffe too long, or he might become overly stressed and drop dead of a heart attack.
The giraffe's main predator is the lion, which can accelerate to almost 50 miles per hour. His second worst enemy, the hyena, can reach 35 mph. If a lion and a giraffe ran a race side by side, the lion would beat the giraffe to the finish line. However, the giraffe is not about to give a predator an even start. He uses his great height and excellent eyesight to spot a pride of lions as far as half a mile away and gets a head start. Lions can sustain their top speed for only about a hundred yards, so they run out of gas before the giraffe does. Hyenas can be more dangerous because they hunt cooperatively. They can take turns sprinting to keep the giraffe from slowing down to catch his breath.
Sometimes a giraffe is laboring under a handicap -- old age, illness or some other weakness -- in this race. Canny predators select their prey from such animals by doing a test run to find a slower one. Another handicap is being a baby. Baby giraffes can run within an hour after birth, but they don't have the legs or the stamina to keep up with Mom for very long. The cow will stop to defend her baby with kicks that can kill a lion or a hyena. But if the pride or clan of hyenas is large she can't always save him, and she might have to run for her own life. The mortality rate for giraffes younger than 1 in East Africa's Serengeti area is as high as 60 percent. It drops to 3 percent once the giraffe is 3 years old and can run like an adult.
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