Giraffe Teeth: How many teeth does a Giraffe have?

Giraffe Teeth

Giraffes are the tallest mammals on Earth, with even newborn calves standing over 6 feet tall [1]. With their long necks accounting for about half their height, it’s no wonder giraffes have evolved unique adaptations to thrive on the African savannah. One area where giraffes differ is in their teeth – these gentle giants have far fewer chompers than expected for their size.

Adult Giraffes Have Just 32 Teeth

An average adult giraffe has only 32 teeth (the full adult complement) at any given time. That may sound like a lot, but relative to their overall size and compared to other hoofed mammals, it’s remarkably low. For example, cows have up to 44 teeth, while horses have between 36 and 44 teeth as adults . Considering giraffes can grow over 18 feet tall and weigh over 3,000 pounds , having just 32 teeth seems disproportionate.

The reason giraffes don’t need more teeth ties into their status as ruminants. All ruminants, including cattle, sheep, deer, antelopes, and giraffes, have multi-chambered stomachs specialized for digesting fibrous vegetation like leaves, stems, bark, etc .

They swallow their food without much chewing initially, then regurgitate and rechew it later (known as “ruminating”) once softened in the stomach. Since giraffes rely more on post-swallow grinding in the stomach, fewer teeth are needed for the initial chewing phases.

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Giraffe Teeth Include Incisors, Canines, Premolars, and Molars

Like all mammals, giraffes have different types of teeth specialized for particular functions [2]:

  • 8 lower incisors (biting, cutting, stripping leaves)
  • No upper incisors
  • 1 upper canine on each side
  • No lower canines
  • 6 premolars on each upper and lower jaw (total 24)
  • 2 molars on each upper and lower jaw (total 8)

The front lower incisors are the teeth you’ll most notice on a giraffe – they’re perfectly positioned for grasping and pulling leaves from branches up to 20 feet high. Interestingly, giraffes lack upper front teeth, giving their bite more crushing power.

The curled canine teeth are prominent on males and used for fighting during the mating season. Finally, the broad premolars and molars in the cheeks and back of the mouth break down and grind cud into digestible particles. Their teeth structure perfectly matches a giraffe’s specialized leaf-eating lifestyle on the African plains.

 

Giraffe showing Teeth

Young Giraffes Have 20 Baby Teeth

Baby giraffes enter the world, standing over 6 feet tall. But just two days after birth, they have only the front incisors erupted through the gums. The other baby teeth develop and erupt gradually. By one year old, calves have a full set of 20 deciduous (“baby”) teeth – fewer than in many other hoofed mammals.

These deciduous teeth last about 18 months before slowly being replaced by adult teeth between 2 and 4 years old. So young giraffes undergo a long transition from baby teeth to mature dentition as they grow towards their full 18+ foot height. Monitoring tooth eruption patterns helps biologists estimate the age of giraffes in the wild.

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Why Do Giraffes Have Blue Tongues?

Peek in a giraffe’s mouth and you may notice their dark bluish or purplish tongue and pale gums. This is yet another unique giraffe adaptation. Their unusual tongue color likely protects against sunburn while feeding for up to 20 hours per day in the hot African sun. The darkened tongue is thought to prevent damaging UV radiation from penetrating delicate underlying tissues.

Furthermore, giraffes regurgitate and rechew caustic stomach contents when they ruminate. The thick epithelium lining their mouth and tongue resists irritation from abrasive plant particles. So the next time you spot a giraffe’s long blue tongue grabbing leaves, remember it’s specially adapted to their lifestyle and environment!

Giraffe eating long tree

Do Giraffes Replace Their Back Teeth?

Because giraffes have so few teeth to start with, losing even one could impact their ability to effectively grind down and digest vegetation. Fortunately, giraffes have specialized back teeth that slowly and continuously erupt to make up for chewing wear over their lifespan.

These back teeth – premolars and molars – emerge from bony sockets below the gum line throughout the giraffe’s life. As the crown tops erode from abrasion and aging, more of the tooth gradually moves up like a slow-motion conveyor belt. This unique mechanism compensates for tooth wear so elderly giraffes can remain effective leaf-eaters.

One strange giraffe dental quirk – they have no lower canine teeth. But the second upper molar often elongates and sharpens as if morphing into a canine shape. While its function is unknown, this fang-like tooth adds even more uniqueness to the giraffe’s already unusual dentition.

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Giraffe Teeth Help Identify Individuals

Because no two giraffes have identical ossicones (horn-like head structures), their skull shape offers a characteristic “fingerprint” for identification [1]. Dental traits provide another way to distinguish individual giraffes from a distance. Researchers photograph and catalog differences like:

  • Spacing between incisors
  • Extra teeth or tooth gaps
  • Unusually long/short teeth
  • Broken or worn flat chewing surfaces
  • Other tooth irregularities

Recording dental characteristics doesn’t require capturing or sedating giraffes for hands-on tooth inspection. Cataloging subtle dental qualities simply by telephoto images helps scientists reliably identify giraffes in the wild.

Gentle Giants With Graceful Smiles

Giraffes fascinate us with their extraordinary size and stature. But they’re also incredibly graceful and gentle creatures. Next time you spot a giraffe’s trademark long eyelashes or flowing walk, take a peek at their teeth, too.

Those front lower incisors stripping acacia leaves reveal a surprisingly small number of teeth inside their long-lashed large lips. And that endearing smile with dark bluish tongue reminds us of their unique adaptations. This is just another of the countless wonders giraffes display as majestic inhabitants on the African plains!