‘It is baffling to me that such a large, iconic and charismatic African species has been understudied for so long’
Giraffes are as socially complex as elephants and their collective organisation is far more advanced than was previously understood, a new study has revealed.
Researchers from the University of Bristol examined interactions in the African species and found that they stay alive long after being able to reproduce to care for their young.
Previously it was understood that giraffes had weak relationships and fewer bonds with other giraffes. In the last 10 years, it was found that living in close proximity to human settlements disturbs giraffe social networks.
Researchers found that giraffes can spend a third of their lives “post-menopause”, which is highly comparable to other species with highly complex social structures.
Elephants for example spend just under a quarter of their lives (23%) of their lives in a post-reproductive state.
The reason why may be the ‘grandmother hypothesis’, which says that human females – and other mammals – survive well past their reproductive prime because of the benefits post-menopausal women offer to their grandchildren.
Zoe Muller, of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “It is baffling to me that such a large, iconic and charismatic African species has been understudied for so long.
“This paper collates all the evidence to suggest that giraffes are actually a highly complex social species, with intricate and high-functioning social systems, potentially comparable to elephants, cetaceans and chimpanzees.
“I hope that this study draws a line in the sand, from which point forwards, giraffes will be regarded as intelligent, group-living mammals which have evolved highly successful and complex societies, which have facilitated their survival in tough, predator-filled ecosystems.”
Ms Muller has suggested a number of areas for future research, such as the need to understand the role that older, post-reproductive adults play in society and what fitness benefits they bring for group survival.
She added: “Recognising that giraffes have a complex cooperative social system and live in matrilineal societies will further our understanding of their behavioural ecology and conservation needs.
“Conservation measures will be more successful if we have an accurate understanding of the species’ behavioural ecology.
“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.”
The paper was published in the journal Mammal Review.
Additional reporting by SWNS