Giraffes have a history of being devalued as socially complex animals that are as long as their necks. In fact, until 20 years ago, it was believed that they had no social structure. Luckily for them, a new review was released this week to straighten out the record. Giraffes actually have social structures that are extremely complex, like elephants. Over the past decade, there has been growing evidence that giraffe social organization has evolved more than previously thought. The study, published in the journal Mammal Review, collected data from 404 research papers on giraffe behavior and social organization.
Authors Joe Mueller and Stephen Harris used this information to test two hypotheses about giraffe populations: first, they have a complex cooperative society, and second, they form maternal societies – societies that identify offspring through motherhood. They found that giraffes spend percent of their lives in a post-reproductive state the equivalent of a post-menopausal giraffe. This is comparable to other species famous for their complex social structure and collaborative care, such as elephants and killer whales, which spend 23 and 35 percent of their lives in this state, respectively.
Muller and Harris suggest that it supports the decision that giraffes are involved in peer parenting, along with matrilines, contributing to the joint parental care of children. In mammals, this is called the “grandmother’s hypothesis” postmenopausal women survive far beyond their reproductive years so that the younger generation can reproduce. This enables the next generation to be younger and thus facilitates the conservation of the species.
The review further states that giraffes exist in predominantly stable female-only groups, forming strong female-female relationships, as well as maternal-calf relationships that can last up to 15 years. We have never heard of such behavior in giraffes; an earlier study found that girls’ affection for friendships was not only sweeter but also more conducive to survival, which helped them to live longer.
Men, on the other hand, find the paper, creating weak bonds that do not last. They tend to roam more from where they were born than females and they are often not involved in keeping calves. These results lead to the conclusion that giraffe societies are complex, cooperative, and matriarchal. Muller said in a statement, “It amazes me that such a large, iconic, and charismatic African species has been realized for so long. This paper combines all the evidence that the giraffe is in fact a highly complex social species with a complex and highly functional social system, which is probably comparable to that of elephants, cetaceans, and chimpanzees.
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