The Social Giraffe Network

Apparently, for many moons, in the scientific realm, zoologists have considered giraffes to be solitary and aloof. 

A 1991 publication on the behavior of African mammals described giraffes as “forming no lasting bonds with its fellows and associating in the most casual way.”

Unlike elephants and apes, which display broad social constructs, giraffes were viewed as tall loners, willing to ditch an alliance at the drop of a kufi. A new study in the scientific journal Mammal Review says, “wait a minute, reaffix that kufi!”

A herd of giraffe - photo from GiraffeWorlds

Doctors Zoe Muller and Stephen Harris from the University of Bristol in England collated hundreds or reports and papers on giraffes, focusing on those produced after the advent of modern photographic and tracking technology. Instead of grouchy hermits, they discovered a socially complex animal, far closer to the elephants and chimps of the world than previously postulated.

Among other behavior that illustrates social bonds, giraffes prefer to dine with friends, they stand as sentinels over dead babies (even the offspring of other individuals), they remain tight with their mothers, and, surprisingly, also with their grandmothers!

Females form groups called crèches, which resemble organized babysitting arrangements. Giraffes partake in allonourishing, a process in which females provide sustenance for the wee ones of other mothers. Scientists believe that grandmothers play a major role in raising the young, which is a shared attribute in humans, orcas, and elephants and a key indicator of strong social communities. Although the communication systems of giraffes are poorly understood, partially a problem of observation, researchers believe complex and cooperative systems such as those above require intricate communication structures.

A giraffe herd in Namibia - from GiraffeWorlds

Giraffes do not communicate in ways we can easily understand or even identify, so perhaps we can let ourselves off the hook when it comes to viewing the world’s tallest creatures as loners instead of socialites.

In the wild, Dr. Muller says she noticed giraffes hanging out like “teenagers.” She added, “I was really surprised to see that all the scientific books said that they were completely non-sociable. I thought, ‘Well, hang on. That’s not what I see at all.’”

This new viewpoint on giraffes should produce more insights in the future, opening up other ideas for observation.

A photo from Dr. Zoe Muller's time in the field

Hopefully, this new wisdom on giraffes can help us wise up. More than 40% of the worldwide population has disappeared since the mid-1980s. If we want to continue to marvel at these towering stunners, we’ll need to step up our conservation game.

Until we cross paths with giraffes again, we’ll part with this fun trivial tidbit: giraffes are the only known vertebrate species not (yet) known to yawn!

Enjoy a few photos of these beautiful creatures!

Another photo from Dr. Zoe Muller
photo by Brendon Jennings
photo by Nadine Volz
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