Why Do Giraffes Have Horns? 6 Funny Facts (The Real Reason)

Have you ever wondered why giraffes have those two little horn-like antlers on top of their head?

Well, you have come to the right place. This article will tell you everything there is to know about these “ossicones“, as they are called.

Why do giraffes have horns? The giraffe has an extinct relative called the Sivatherium. This animal had two sets of ossicones, as they are really called. Impressive sets of horn-like antlers which the giraffe inherited. The giraffe can also use them during fights to defend itself.

What’s the purpose of the ossicones on the giraffe?

The fact is that we don’t know for sure.

It may very well be that the giraffe used to have something else attached to the skull where we find the ossicones today. Just like its ancestors as you can see at the bottom of the article.

Today the horns don’t really have a purpose. That being said, sometimes the giraffe will use the horns for defense.

giraffe horns are called ossicones

If an enemy comes to close the giraffe can choose to swing its head really fast that sometimes these little horns will help to knock out the other opponent. The giraffe might look really calm and relaxed most of the time but if you can get really aggressive when it has to protect itself from enemies.

The horns can come in handy in special situations but in the everyday life of the giraffe, it doesn’t seem like they serve any purpose.

As you can see further down the article some of the early ancestors to the giraffe hat bigger horns on top of their heads. So one reason for these ossicones is that they have derived from its ancestors.

They are very unique to the giraffe and you only find them and one other species (more info further down).

Some giraffes have three ossicones. Two at the back of the head and one in the center between the eyes. And as you can see further down in this article, some of the extinct relatives to the giraffe have four ossicones!

Here’s a picture of an African giraffe from Tanzania photographed in 2012 during a safari trip. Notice the extra horn in the center, it’s a lot bigger than we normally see.

giraffe with 3 horns

This is just one of the many wonders in nature and we would probably never find out exactly why this type of giraffe has an extra horn.

But it sure looks cute!

How do giraffes protect themselves?

When you take a good look at a giraffe it doesn’t look dangerous at all. And you may wonder how it can defend itself from other animals.

The giraffe can actually swing it’s long neck really fast and hit an animal. In order to defend itself, it can actually knock even big cats out so they become unconscious for a while. This gives the giraffe an opportunity to run away before the predator wakes up again.

As the giraffe swings his head these little horns add extra weight (and therefore extra speed) to the swing. So it might be an advantage for the giraffe to have them after all even though they might look funny and not seem important.

We don’t believe the giraffe uses the little horns directly to defend itself. They are covered with skin and are not pointy like antlers and real horns. So we can’t really use them to hurt another animal.

What do we call the horns of the giraffe?

The real name is “Ossicones“. The word ossicone literally means “boney cone”. It’s bone tissue but it’s softer than the hard type of bone we would find inside a leg or inside the neck.

People call them all sorts of things:

  • Horns
  • Antennas
  • Antlers
  • Bumps
  • etc.

The reason people don’t really know what to call them is probably that the real name is really hard to remember and articulate. So it’s much easier to just call them horns or antlers.

How to Pronounce the word “Ossicones”?

The first part of the word is pronounced like the name “Ossi” and the last part is pronounced like “Jones” with a “C”.

So when putting the two sounds together you say ossi-cones.

Just like that. So it’s actually very easy to say and even kids can get it right after a try or two.

What do they feel like?

The ossicones are covered with skin so they are not like antlers. They are not hard like horns either.

They are made of bone and as the little giraffe grows up they will attach to the skull.

When the giraffe is born, however, the ossicones aren’t attached to the skull. We believe the reason for this is to protect them from breaking and doing damage to the little guys head.

When you touch to ossicones they feel soft and firm like the legs of the giraffe.

This is also one of the main differences between the ossicones of the giraffe and actual horns. Because they are covered with skin and are soft they are not like horns at all.

What are the “horns” made of?

The horns are made of “cartilage” which is a material that is more flexible than bone but it’s still firm.

It’s also found inside the human ears. So it’s not antlers and it’s not horns either. The cartilage material is actually not normally found inside horns but inside ears and softer parts of the body.

Outside the ossicones, you find a fine layer of skin and fur just like we find it on the rest of the giraffe’s body. It’s interesting why the giraffes all have skin growing outside these ossicones, and it may be a hint hidden here.

It may well be, that the giraffe’s skin started to grow and cover the horns, as they starting to disappear, as the giraffe evolved from its ancestors.

We will probably never know this for sure but when you take a lot of the animals below, which are closely related to the giraffe, it would make a lot of sense. Especially when looking at the big Sivatherium. (image at the bottom)

But more on that in the next section.

What are giraffes related to?

As it turns out giraffes are not the only animal with ossicones. But we’ll find them on one other animal today. I used to be a little more common long time ago, but these animals are extinct today.

The closest relative to the giraffe is called the Okapis.

As you can see below the male Okapi also have these little horn-like antlers at the front of its head. Other than that it’s not really easy to tell that this animal is the closest relative to that giraffe. It’s a lot smaller and looks more like a horse or maybe a little deer.

But The little horns give it away: It’s actually closely related to the giraffe!

Okapi with ossicone horns

The male okapis also have ossicones on their head.

The female okapis did not have these horns on their heads, unlike the giraffes. For the giraffes, however, you will find them on the males as well as the females. Nobody really knows why we will not find them horns on the female okapis.

Besides the two horns, the okapi and the giraffe also have something else in common: A long dark-colored tongue. They both have a very characteristic tongue which feels funny. You might have seen it in the zoo when the giraffe sticks out its long tongue to grab food from your hand.

Giraffes sure are funny animals and we don’t know why they have the dark tongue either. We are left guessing and your guess could be as good as mine.

Which other animals have ossicones?

  • Sivatherium
  • Climacoceratids
  • Climacoceras

As you can tell from the names, these animals are extinct so we didn’t really care to give him real names.

The Sivatherium actually looks like the perfect mix between an okapi and a giraffe. And when you look at the head you will notice that it has much bigger horns than the okapi and the giraffe.

And this just might be the real reason why giraffes have horns. Because this ancient relative did have long horns/antlers and when it developed into a giraffe the horn didn’t disappear. Instead, they only grow smaller and looks like the ones we find on the top of the giraffes head today.

sivatherium with horns

The “Climacoceratids” looked a lot more like the giraffes. They had the same type of ossicones as you find on the giraffes. We don’t know for sure, as we only have old bones or reference, but it looks like they are closer related to the giraffes when we inspect the structure and length of the ossicones.

The “Giraffe family” of animals are called “Giraffidae”, and as we told you above we only find the giraffe and the okapi today.

We only find the giraffes in Africa on the savannah. The okapi also lives exclusively in Africa but not on the savanna. It roams the rainforest of Congo.

Morten Storgaard

I love pets and I've had several pets including hamsters, reptiles, birds, and fish. I have written extensively about pets and educational content about wild animals.

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