Giraffes May Be as Socially Complex as Chimps and Elephants

A review of previous studies suggests that giraffes have social marks, such as friendships, day care, and grandmothers.

Giraffes appear to be above it all. From beneath those long lashes, they float above the savanna like two-story ascetics, staring down at the fray. For decades, many scientists believed that giraffes treated their peers in the same way, with one popular wildlife book describing them as “aloof” and only capable of “the most casual” relationships.

However, as experts have paid more attention to these lanky symbols in recent years, a new sociological picture has emerged. Female giraffes are now known to form long-term relationships. They have lunch with their friends, watch dead calves, and spend time with their moms and grandmothers. Females even create crèches, which are shared day care arrangements in which they take turns watching and feeding one other’s children. .

According to Zoe Muller, a wildlife scientist who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Bristol in England, such observations have reached a critical mass. She and Stephen Harris, another Bristol researcher, recently combed through hundreds of giraffe studies in search of larger trends. Their findings, which were published in the journal Mammal Review on Tuesday, show that giraffes are socially sophisticated mammals similar to elephants or chimps. It’s just that they’re a little more subtle about it.

Dr. Muller first saw giraffes as secret socialites while conducting research for her master’s thesis in Laikipia, Kenya, in 2005. She was there to gather research on antelopes, but she was captivated to the ganglier ungulates. “They’re so strange to look at,” she explained. “You wouldn’t believe they even existed if someone described them to you.”

Dr. Muller began researching the giraffes’ activities after seeing that they spent a lot of time together – they appeared “like teens hanging out,” she added. “I was astounded to learn that all of the scientific texts said they were utterly unsociable,” she stated. “I thought to myself, ‘Wait a minute.’ That is not at all what I think.’

It’s reasonable that the nuances of giraffe sociality have been difficult to see in an environment full of trumpeting elephant matriarchs and fast-paced coordinated lion hunts, according to Kim VanderWaal, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota who has also researched them. Giraffes do not communicate in ways that we can see, and they have peaceful social lives with little visible pally actions like as grooming or cooperative territorial defense. The introduction of digital cameras, which aid in the monitoring of individuals based on their spot patterns, and social network analysis, which may uncover hidden associative patterns, has made it simpler to figure out their connections.

Dr. Muller believes that giraffe society is based on strong pair relationships, particularly between moms and their young, which consolidate into kinship groupings. Dr. Muller was struck by “how strong the bonds may be within a group” after witnessing females remain near to the body of a dying calf for many days, forgoing food and drink.

She and Dr. Harris evaluated nearly 400 papers for this current publication, bringing together all of the data. According to Fred Bercovitch, a conservation scientist with the Anne Innis Dagg Foundation who was not involved with the study, the outcome is “a strong scientific assessment” that supports the idea that “giraffe communities are way, far more sophisticated than most biologists imagine.”

It also identifies a number of potential study directions. Dr. Muller observed something interesting while reading the studies: giraffe females tend to live far into their reproductive years. Post-reproductive adults in other socially sophisticated species, such as humans and killer whales, provide wisdom and care to younger generations, allowing them to survive.

Dr. Muller believes that this phenomena, known as the grandmother hypothesis, should be investigated in giraffes. If this is true, it will have conservation concerns, as elderly giraffes are frequently culled or hunted for trophy purposes. It would also add to the evidence that giraffes participate in complex types of social interaction. According to Dr. Muller, the presence of those calf-care crèches might even classify giraffes as cooperative breeders, similar to beavers or scrub jays. .

Others are more hesitant. Dr. VanderWaal, who was not involved in the study, stated, “Giraffe social structure is complicated,” and experts are only beginning to study it. “I believe we need to do more study before concluding that giraffes live in cooperative groups.”

However, everyone agrees that we should keep craning our necks until we have a better view. Dr. Muller described giraffes as “one of the most identifiable species on the planet.” “And we’re only exploring the possibilities right now.”