Giraffe: Taking Problem Solving to New Heights

1024 682 Roddy Carter

A modern legend suggests that the giraffe is Africa’s most curious animal. The story goes that if you lie down in the dirt within eyesight of a herd of giraffe, they will approach you tentatively until they stand over you, peering down through elegant eyelashes to see what you’re doing. While the story is certainly more myth than truth, curiosity has always accompanied this extraordinary beast.

Imagine planning the evolution of this unique animal! At first, it seems obvious. The giraffe quickly became a landmark example in Darwin’s Origin of Species work. The modern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) is relatively young. It was only 8 million years ago that it evolved as a result of changing habitat and competition for food in south and central Europe. The tallest of land mammals, it raised its head to a height of almost 20 feet in order to enjoy access to sweet foliage at the top of trees, well above the browsing zone of large antelope. It achieved this with disproportionately long legs, and its trademark neck. Rather than adding extra bones, it elongated each of the 7 cervical vertebrae, and modified the joint closest to the head to be able to reach even higher. Add to that a 20 inch (50 cm) prehensile tongue that can deftly pick its way between sharp thorns to reach tiny acacia leaves, and you have one highly specialized tree-top browser.

In full transparency, other natural scientists have recently challenged Darwin’s “competing browsers” theory, favoring instead the “sexual selection” hypothesis. Giraffe males use their heads as clubs in territorial dominance battles. Anybody that has sat quietly in the African savannah only to have the peace broken by the thunderous clap of a giraffe striking another with its head will understand the ferocity of this weapon. The hypothesis states that a longer neck produces higher velocity head-strikes, with obvious competitive advantage. This theory doesn’t explain why females also developed long necks, and hasn’t received universal support.

Assuming the first theory is correct, the design team must have looked back in great pride when their first prototype strode to the edge of a thicket of tall trees and gorged itself without competition from the highest leaves. But after a while, something terrible happened. The tall beast needed a drink. In order to get oxygen-rich blood up the long neck to the high attitude head, the team had ensured that the giraffe could generate massive blood pressures. With a super-thick heart muscle, it was able to generate systolic pressures twice that of humans and smaller terrestrial animals.

Actually, en route to this first functional prototype, the team had to overcome another gravity-related challenge. You see, they had picked a ruminant to stretch upwards towards the heavens. You will remember that ruminants have 4 stomachs. Like domestic cattle, they regurgitate stomach contents into their mouth to re-chew as part of the digestive process. If you watch carefully, you will see that modern giraffe still “chew the cud” like the average Texan steer. The design team fortified the musculature of the giraffe’s esophagus, enabling this long, tubular muscle to propel stomach contents against gravity all the way up the elongated neck and into the mouth of G Raf 1.0.

Before we allow the team too much celebration, let’s return to the calamitous event that occurred when the giraffe needed to quench its thirst. In polite terms, it splayed its forelegs inelegantly before swooping its head down to ground level (water level, actually) where the combination of super-high blood pressure and a devastating rush of blood exploded its brain! Ouch. End of version 1.0.

After a few thousand years, maybe more, the design team returned triumphantly to the animal boardroom with the working prototype of G Raf 2.0. They slaved diligently to come up with two significant advances. The first was simple. They increased the number of one-way valves in the jugular veins from a single minimally active valve to 7 substantial, life-saving valves that prevented the catastrophic back-flow of several buckets-full of blood in that fatal head rush. The second intervention was more elegant. They designed a rich plexus of blood vessels, appropriately named the rete mirabilis, to absorb the flow of excess blood towards the brain, preventing the explosive pressures experienced in version 1.0 when the poor fellow put his head down to drink. We can only imagine the collective celebration when the final decision was made to go full steam ahead in the factories and to begin the manufacturing and distribution of thousands of these elegant, eclectic creatures!

In truth, the genius of nature surpasses our own linear design processes. Development of these multiple physiologic adaptations (and more that I haven’t described) was simultaneous. Each little step forward enhanced the survival of new members of the species, reinforcing new phenotypes for success at the genetic level. Only the retrospect enabled by carbon dating and molecular studies afford the human eye the privilege of real-time observation of this miraculous journey.

I am reminded of this painstaking process each time I hear the story of entrepreneurs who come up with a new idea. Each step forward seems to be greeted, not by an adoring group of fans at the finish line, but by a fresh set of obstacles. We would do well to study Nature, admiring her meticulous patience and seemingly limitless endurance. If you could replicate her mindset in your own organization, throw in creativity, and then reward innovation handsomely, you would be unstoppable. Go for it!

Have fun,


(Roddy Carter is an executive consultant who uses nature to provide analogues for human organizational structure and function. Through the BioSimilar Programs he helps organizations select and learn from a species or environment that closely resembles their own circumstances. This is a fun way to build and implement strategy and to enhance performance. Please reach out through the connect tab at if you’d like to explore a BioSimilar Program in your organization.)

To follow this blog, please subscribe here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.