Blog: Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare

Giraffe Activity

Hi, I’m Catherine Razal, the Animal Behavior Research Assistant here at Brookfield Zoo.

Last month you read about Dr. Melinda Conners’ “D-tag” research with our group of bottlenose dolphins, measuring their activity, movements, and even their vocalizations! She made a great point about how tricky it is to measure activity in high-energy animals. Similarly, we are applying these techniques to our herd of giraffes.

I know what you’re thinking: giraffes don’t exactly come to mind as a “high-energy” animal (unless you’re thinking of Potoka, our two-year old giraffe, on the first day of springlike weather!). Giraffes are one of the most common species in North American zoos, however, we don’t know a whole lot about them and their activity. We want to know just how active they are. 

Potoka on the move. 

Sleeping Giraffes Never Lie (At Least Not All the Time!)
Have you ever seen a sleeping giraffe? Surprisingly, you probably have and didn’t realize it. Giraffes can sleep in three positions: standing up, lying down with their neck erect (recumbent sleep), or lying down with the head rested on their flank (deep sleep). Giraffes remain completely motionless during sleep—they don’t even move their ears! However, their sleep patterns are very short, and deep sleep is very rare. As a prey species, giraffes always have to be on the lookout. So next time you are watching our giraffes here at the zoo, look at their ears to see if they’re sleeping! Just don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

Giraffe in the recumbent sleep position.

It’s the Season for Fitbits©
We want to know more about these different positions in giraffes and how much time they spend lying down versus standing up. At Brookfield Zoo, we have a special set-up for our giraffes that we have in common with other Midwest and Northeastern Zoos—we have different enclosures for our giraffes for the changing seasons. Reticulated giraffes originate from warmer climates (the regions of Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Sudan in Africa to be exact), so they are given a heated, indoor exhibit to protect them from our bitter Chicago winters. With this unique set-up, we can measure if there are any differences in activity rates when the giraffes are in their outdoor, summer exhibits versus their indoor, winter exhibits.

Given the size and behaviors of giraffes, they are the perfect model for this study and allows the Animal Welfare Research team to utilize technology never used on giraffes before. The technology we are using is similar to the D-tags used by Dr. Conners on dolphins – a data logger with a 3-axis accelerometer we are calling the Giraffe FitBit©. The accelerometer technology in this device is what tells us when a giraffe is standing up versus lying down. This is exactly the same technology in smart phones when you tilt your phone, the accelerometer is what changes the view from portrait to landscape mode. It is also utilized when a FitBit© knows you’re dozing off to sleep because of its position and lack of movement.  

With the help of incredible volunteers who customized “bracelets” for the giraffes to wear (made out of elastic material and Velcro) and to amazing animal care staff at Habitat Africa! The Kopje for implementing this project into the giraffes’ training protocol, the giraffes successfully wore their Fitbits for several 24-hour periods in summer 2015 and winter 2016. 

Racquel Ardisana, Keeper at Habitat Africa! The Kopje, shows off the bracelet on her arm. Each bracelet has a small pocket where the data logger (“FitBit”) slides into. The bracelet was carefully designed with the help of biologists and veterinary staff at Brookfield Zoo, to ensure the safety and comfort of the animal. 


Dara Kelly, Senior Keeper at Habitat Africa! The Kopje, places a customized bracelet made out of elastic material on Potoka, a 2-year old male giraffe. Kelly has a whistle in her mouth for positive reinforcement training. When the bracelet is successfully worn by Potoka, Kelly will use a “bridge”, in this case a whistle blow, to reinforce him. A bridge is used as a connection between the animal’s correct behavior and when he will receive positive reinforcement, which would be yummy lettuce and other veggies!  

Potoka, 2-year old male giraffe, admiring his new bracelet. 

We just wrapped up our data collection period for the winter season so you won’t see our giraffes wearing these bracelets anymore, but stay tuned for the results of this study! Do you think behaviors of giraffes change in the summer versus the winter? Check back to find out!

-Catherine R 

Posted: 4/11/2016 2:55:37 PM by

Center for the Science of Animal Care and Welfare

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