Innovation/Global Risk 

Nature’s Great Innovation: The Incredible Giraffe

The Power of a Powerful Process 

By Shlomo Maital    



 A courageous BBC Nature TV documentary has a team of researchers dissecting animals,  and revealing amazing details.  It’s tough to watch (all the animals died of natural causes, and the dissection is really an autopsy) but fascinating, all the same.  So far, I’ve watched dissections of crocodiles and giraffes. Both have evolved over millions of years, to adapt perfectly to their environment. 

      The lesson here for innovators is simple and powerful:  Continuous minute changes, each providing creatures with a tiny edge to survive long enough to procreate,  ultimately become a creature so perfectly adapted to its environment, that it lives for a million years essentially unchanged.    These changes often occur by accidental mutations, and most such mutations simply don’t work and disappear; but the few that do, endure and prevail, and contribute to a unique perfect design.

   Here are some of the findings revealed in the giraffe dissection:

  • The giraffe’s long neck evolved not just to reach treetops. It also enables giraffes to spot predators. Giraffes’ eyes are close together, enabling them to see well directly ahead and to gain depth perception.  A powerful muscle keeps the neck erect, and relaxes to enable to giraffe to drink.
  • Giraffe’s spots, too, have a purpose.  Each spot, or mottled area, is its own temperature control area, with blood vessels that open and close. Living in the burning desert, giraffes, who feed during the heat of the day, need to be able to dissipate heat. Each ‘mottle’ area can do so. An infrared view of the giraffe shows heat differences for each ‘spot’ or mottled area.
  • Giraffes have very thin, very very long, intestines.  They eat leaves, which have little nutrition, and so have to extract every last bit of nutrition from them.  And they gain most of their water, too, from the leaves…so they need long long intestines. 
  • Giraffes have evolved incredible tongues, very long and muscular, which can wrap around leaves while avoiding thorns. 
  • Giraffes have tiny valves in the blood vessels of their neck and legs. When they stoop to drink, their high blood pressure should actually damage their brain with heavy blood flow – but stop-valves have evolved to prevent that.  One-way valves exist in their long legs as well, otherwise, blood would accumulate there, like dropsie in humans. 
  • Giraffes are NOT silent, they communicate, though not with vocal chords but with a kind of sound box. This communication, it turns out, is vital.
  • Giraffe males fight by bashing each other, swinging their long necks and bashing their head into their rivals’ ribs.  The longer the neck, the greater the force and the leverage.  Hence, males with longer necks get to mate with females…and necks get longer and longer.

   Each of these giraffe features occurred through evolution and natural selection.

     Crocodiles are even more perfect.  According to biologists, “of all the reptiles alive today, crocodiles and alligators may be the least changed from their prehistoric ancestors of the late Cretaceous period, over 65 million years ago”.  For example, they have amazing stomachs, because they have to digest their food whole, in huge chunks; a special artery (non-existent in mammals) drives blood directly from their hearts to their stomachs, and the blood contains carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide creates acid, carbonic acid, H2CO3, which helps their digestion.  One can imagine an evolutionary accident that one time created such an artery – and those lucky few crocs who had it procreated like mad.     

            What do crocs and giraffes have to do with innovation?  Simple.  I’ve seen a great many one-shot startups, who think that creativity is like hitting a home run, or a century in cricket, only one time.  But it isn’t.  It should be a continual process, like evolution, with big and small improvements, driven by the users and the clients, constantly evolving and experimenting, changing the WAY things are done, orders are filled, customers addressed, always with everyone in the organization aware that they are vital instruments of evolution, looking for ‘mutations’, trying them, discarding the bad ones, preserving and improving the good ones, always aiming at perfection.    

    Stick pictures of a croc or a giraffe around coffee rooms and time clocks.  Tell your Board and your workers: Now, let’s create a crocodile.  Or a giraffe.  Not to eat the competition, or stomp on it – but to make it irrelevant.