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Male giraffes have social connections beyond their own community

Nature is not the mechanical clinking of cogs, preordained by certain ecological laws. It is dynamic – animals and plants form complex and flexible relationships in their individual, contingent contexts. A new study revealing the differing sexual politics in giraffe society illustrates just that. The study shows that male giraffes are more socially connected than females.

“The degree to which an animal is connected to others in its social network influences reproductive success and population ecology, spread of information, and even how diseases move through a population. Information about sociality therefore can provide important guidance for conservation,” explained study co-author Derek Lee, an associate research professor of Biology at Penn State.

Professor Lee and a team of researchers followed the movement, behavior, and social interaction of a population of Masai giraffes in the Tarangire ecosystem of northern Tanzania. They found that, while female giraffes form closer, more intimate relationships with their peers, male giraffes had a tendency to cast a wider social net. 

“We found that male giraffes overall had higher social connectedness than females, which means males interact with greater numbers of other individuals than females,” said Professor Lee. “Older males had the shortest social path length to all the other giraffes in the network. This might reflect the mating strategy of males, who roam widely across the landscape searching for females to mate with and make connections in the process.” 

“Young males had the most social ties and moved most often among groups, reflecting social exploration as they prepare to disperse away from their mothers.”

The findings feed into the existing body of research that appears to show adult females forming communities among friends and relations. The males maintain these social ties by moving from community to community, establishing what has been termed “super-communities.” 

“Among giraffes, adult females have enduring social relationships and form distinct and stable social communities with a relatively large number of other females, while, in their perpetual search for mating opportunities, adult males connect the adult female communities, forming super-communities,” said study co-author Monica Bond of the University of Zurich.

“This type of complex society has evolutionary and conservation advantages, because the dynamics of the social system should allow gene flow between groups, which is an important part of maintaining a healthy and robust population.”

While we are accustomed to thinking that elephants, dolphins, and primates (animals that are considering intelligent in terms that we humans understand) form these complex social webs, we don’t often imagine hoofed ungulates such as giraffes maintaining a complex body of relationships. Studies like this illustrate how much we have yet to learn about the ever-evolving world of animal society. 

The study is published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

By Alex Ruger, Staff Writer

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