Prior to the last decade or so, giraffes were thought to have only short-lived, fleeting relationships. By contrast, recent studies have shown that giraffes have a much more advanced social structure than what was previously thought.
“Recognizing that giraffes have a complex cooperative social system and live in matrilineal societies will further our understanding of their behavioural ecology and conservation needs,” explained Zoe Muller of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences.
“Conservation measures will be more successful if we have an accurate understanding of the species’ behavioral 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 new study has revealed that giraffes spend up to 30 percent of their lives in a post-reproductive state. The experts noted that this is comparable to other species with highly complex social structures, such as elephants and killer whales.
For these types of species that practice cooperative care, post-menopausal females offer survival benefits for related offspring. This is known as the “Grandmother hypothesis,”which suggests that females live past the point of fertility to help with successive generations of offspring and to help preserve the family genes.
The researchers believe that older adult female giraffes probably function in the same way. According to Muller, giraffes are likely to engage in cooperative parenting, along matrilines, and contribute to the shared parental care of related kin.
“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 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.”
The study is published in the journal Mammal Review.