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What We Almost Missed About Giraffes

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As conservation efforts for Africa’s dwindling giraffe populations tick up, new research points to another reason to protect these elegant ungulates.

Few animals capture the imagination of a child quite like the giraffe. These tall, deliberate herbivores may sit atop the “absurd fellow earthlings” category—and for good reason. But with numbers now teetering toward endangered, scientists have discovered we’ve misunderstood these gentle giants for ages. And it could be just in the nick of time.

New research out of the University of Bristol says giraffes are highly social creatures, long mislabeled as “socially aloof.”

The findings, published in the recent issue of the journal Mammal Review, include the first documented understanding of the giraffe’s social network. The researchers looked at more than 400 papers on giraffe behaviors.

Complex social systems

“The most surprising thing for me is that it has taken until 2021 to recognize that giraffes have a complex social system. We have known for decades about other species of socially complex mammal, such as elephants, primates and cetaceans, but it is baffling to me how such a charismatic and well-known species as the giraffe could have been so understudied until recently,” Zoe Muller, study author and biologist at the University Of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences, said in a statement.

Image courtesy Magdalena Kula Manche on Unsplash

Like a number of species, including its Serengeti mates, the African elephants, are matrilineal, with female giraffes bonding and sharing the rearing responsibilities of the collective young. Mother giraffe and her calves also form deep bonds, the research found. Like elephants, the mothers show distress and grief when a calf dies—even if it’s not her own, but belonging to another female in the society.

The research points to a rare theory about animals in the wild, called the grandmother hypothesis. Seen in a few species outside of humans, including orcas and elephants, females live long after their prime reproductive years in what’s believed to be a way to help the species survive. In these matrilineal societies, 30 percent of the lifetime of female giraffes were “post-reproductive”. For elephants, that number is closer to 23 percent; in orcas, it’s 35 percent. In humans, it can be upwards of 50 percent.

Matrilineal societies

“My suggestion is that giraffe ‘grandmothers’ probably play an important role in the survival of related group members. Grandmothers are likely to be repositories of knowledge for the group, but also play an important role in childcare and co-rearing of young,” Muller told CNN in an email.

Despite the enormity of challenges giraffes face—from predators and poachers to the challenge of feeding their 14-foot, 1,500-pound frames—these okapi relatives can live more than three decades.

Image courtesy Melissa van Niekerk on Unsplash

The researchers say there’s still more to learn, like how the giraffe communicates, what the life cycle of the males looks like after reproductive prime, and just what benefits the group living offers the individuals.

But the researchers do agree that the new information could help to protect the species; giraffe populations have declined more than 40 percent since 1985. They’re currently listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Muller says she hopes the study “draws a line in the sand”, and from that point forward, “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.”

Read: All of Los Angeles Is Now a Certified Wildlife Habitat

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