Conspicuous features of colouration in giraffes (Giraffa spp.)

Inconspicuous colouration allows large mammals to be overlooked by predators. However, it is possible for these animals to communicate socially by means of flags - small-scale conspicuous features arranged on the figure so as to be displayed discretely to companions without negating the overall crypsis/camouflage.

The location of flags on particularly mobile body-parts such as the ear pinnae, feet and tail allows such communication to be activated by movement, and de-activated when the animal 'freezes' in stationary self-concealment.

Because giraffes (Giraffa, see are the largest land mammals with camouflage-colouration (, their flags potentially facilitate communication over distances of hundreds of meters.

A CAUDAL FLAG in giraffes - consisting of a black tail-tassel - is activated by vigorous movement of the tail, particularly while the animal is running ( and

However, the pale flags of giraffes are relatively subtle, because they depend on sheen effects and can be activated by slight movements.

A noteworthy aspect of these pale flags is the variation among the species and subspecies of giraffes.

The only pale flag common to all species of giraffes is an auricular flag. In the case of Giraffa reticulata (see and this is the only conspicuously pale feature on the whole figure, viewed from any angle.

The following shows the caudal and auricular flags in action simultaneously, which again enhances conspicuousness because of the contrast between dark and pale:


The auricular flag in giraffes consists of a pale, sheeny surface on the back-of-ear ( This accentuates the movement of figures walking away from the observer. It is relatively poorly developed in Giraffa tippelskirchi tippelskirchi (in which the sheen effect seems weak) and Giraffa camelopardalis peralta (in which the pale feature seems hardly noticeable given that the whole head tends to be pale, see

Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi

Giraffa tippelskirchi tippelskirchi

Giraffa tippelskirchi thornicrofti

Giraffa giraffa giraffa


A laryngeal flag, consisting of a pale tract between the crook of the throat and the base of the ear, occurs in several forms of giraffe, subject to individual variation. It is clearest and most consistent in Giraffa tippelskirchi.

The laryngeal flag works in conjunction with a conspicuous paleness on the cheeks that occurs in several forms of giraffe, subject to individual variation and illumination (e.g. and and and and and

Giraffa tippelskirchi tippelskirchi

Giraffa giraffa giraffa

Giraffa giraffa angolensis

The laryngeal flag is continuous with the auricular flag in certain perspectives ( and However, it is activated by the movements of foraging ( and and


A pedal flag occurs in two of the four species of giraffes. This consists of spotless pale surfaces on the feet and is activated by walking.

In Giraffa camelopardalis the pedal flag extends to the whole of the lower legs.

Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi
second photo in

In Giraffa tippelskirchi the pedal flag is restricted to the pasterns and fetlocks (

Giraffa tippelskirchi tippelskirchi

An ilial flag and a pectoral flag occur only in Giraffa giraffa and are individually variable.


The ilial flag is a nebulously pale and sheeny area on the hindquarters, offset by a dark, anti-sheen effect on the rump above it. It can work in conjunction with the caudal flag (e.g. However, of all the flags it is - dependent on individual and illumination - the one most visible at a distance (e.g.

Giraffa giraffa giraffa
third photo in and


The pectoral flag is a paired pale patch on the anterior surface of the junction between forelegs and chest. It is most noticeable in mature males, which tend to be otherwise darkened.

Giraffa giraffa giraffa


No form of giraffe possesses all these flags. The distribution, by geographic area, is as follows:

  • species camelopardalis, found from West Africa to western Kenya, has an auricular flag (except in subspecies peralta) and a pedal flag (in attenuated form);
  • species reticulata, found in northern Kenya, has only an auricular flag;
  • species tippelskirchi, found from Kenya to eastern Zambia, has an auricular flag (perhaps relatively poorly developed), a laryngeal flag and a pedal flag (in accentuated form); and
  • species giraffa, found in southern Africa, has an auricular flag (perhaps relatively poorly developed), a laryngeal flag (relatively poorly developed), an ilial flag and a pectoral flag, the last two being restricted to subspecies giraffa.
Posted on 31 March, 2021 02:25 by milewski milewski


Posted by milewski over 2 years ago

The following shows four of the flags possessed by Giraffa giraffa giraffa, within one photo:

Posted by milewski over 2 years ago

Very interesting, many thanks for posting this!

Posted by anasacuta over 2 years ago

@anasacuta You are most welcome.

Posted by milewski over 2 years ago

Fascinating observations made here. Thanks for the lesson!

Posted by goodlordbird over 2 years ago

@goodlordbird Hi Nathan, I'm so glad that you find this informative, with best wishes from Antoni.

Posted by milewski over 2 years ago

The following of Giraffa tippelskirchi show laryngeal and pedal flags within the same photos: and

Posted by milewski over 2 years ago

The following show that a laryngeal flag is produced by alteration of both the matrix and the spotting: and The matrix is converted from fawn to whitish, and the spotting is largely absent at the crook of the throat.

Posted by milewski over 2 years ago

The following shows a combination of auricular flag and ilial flag in Giraffa giraffa giraffa:

Posted by milewski over 2 years ago

In the following of Giraffa giraffa giraffa, one individual shows the ilial flag while the other nicely shows how much more conspicuous the ear pinna becomes when its posterior surface appears:

Posted by milewski over 2 years ago

The following shows that the caudal flag is not activated in self-defence while standing:

Posted by milewski over 2 years ago

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