The natural world never ceases to surprise and the more we learn about it the more surprises are in store for us. Take giraffes. They are known for several things, but being social animals has not been among them.
Yet the ruminants are not only highly social but just how social they are has surprised even scientists as the animals have been relatively little studied in this regard so far.
“It is baffling to me that such a large, iconic and charismatic African species has been understudied for so long,” observes Zoe Muller, a researcher at the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences who has been studing the social lives of giraffes in Africa.
All the evidence suggests, Muller says, “that giraffes are actually a highly complex social species, with intricate and high-functioning social systems, potentially comparable to elephants, cetaceans and chimpanzees.”
She and an colleague, Stephen Harris, have set out to remedy this shortcoming in our collective knowledge about giraffes, which they do in a newly published study.
In it they explain that until two decades ago it was widely believed by scientists that giraffes had no significant social structure. A decade or so ago scientists began to devote more attention to the social organization of giraffes, but most research focused on isolated populations, which made it difficult to draw general conclusions.
In their own research Muller and Harris decided to test a hypothesis that female giraffes maintain a complex cooperative system of matrilineal societies involving stable groups and offspring that stay in their birth group for some or even all of their lives. Female giraffes also help rear young to which they did not give birth, according to this hypothesis.
As part of their research the two scientists reviewed more than 400 studies on giraffe behaviour and social organization. The conclusion they have reached is that giraffes spend up to 30% of their lives in a post-reproductive state. “[This] is comparable to other species with highly complex social structures and cooperative care, such as elephants and killer-whales which spend 23% and 35% of their lives in a post-reproductive state respectively,” the scientists note.
“We show that giraffe exhibit many of the features typical of mammals with complex cooperative social systems and matrilineal societies,” they write. “However, the social complexity hypothesis posits that such species also require complex communication systems to regulate interactions and relations among group members; giraffe communication systems are poorly understood.”
Further research will be needed to better understand the social organization of giraffes, but the new study is an important step in that direction. Yet even as we seek to understand these iconic ruminants better, we’ll also have to protect wild populations, which have declined by 40% since 1985. The animals have already gone extinct in at least seven and possibly as many as nine countries in Africa, the scientists warn.
“Conservation measures will be more successful if we have an accurate understanding of the species’ behavioural ecology,” Muller says. “If we view giraffes as a highly socially complex species, this also raises their ‘status’ towards being a more complex and intelligent mammal that is increasingly worthy of protection.”
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