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Scientists shed new light on the sex life of giraffes

Since giraffes have no breeding season, don’t go into heat like cats or dogs, and don’t make mating calls or provide visual cues of sexual readiness, understanding their sexual behavior is not an easy task. However, a recent study led by the University of California, Davis has now provided novel insights into the unique sex life of these fascinating creatures, their reproductive behavior, and how their specific anatomy supports this behavior.

By observing giraffes during multiple research trips to Namibia’s Etosha National Park, the scientists found that males test females for sexual receptivity by first provoking them to urinate by nudging them and sniffing their genitalia. If the female is open to a bull’s invitation, she widens her stance and pees for around five seconds, while the male takes the urine in his mouth. Afterwards, he curls his lip, inhaling with an open mouth – a behavior known as “flehmen” which transports the female’s scent and pheromones from the male’s oral cavity to his vomeronasal organ.

Although flehmen is common among many animal species, including cats or horses, most mammals wait until the urine is on the ground before starting to investigate. The giraffes, however, are not built for such explorations. 

“They don’t risk going all the way to the ground because of the extreme development of their head and neck,” said study lead author Lynette Hart, a professor of Population Health and Reproduction at UC Davis. “So they have to nudge the female, effectively saying, ‘Please urinate now.’ And often she will. He has to elicit her cooperation. If not, he’ll know there’s no future for him with her.”

“This is part of their reproductive behavior,” added senior author Benjamin Hart, a professor emeritus of Veterinary Medicine at the same university. “This adds to our understanding of what giraffes are doing as they accumulate around a water hole. People love watching giraffes. I think the more the public understands about them, the more interested they’ll be in their conservation.”

The study is published in the journal Animals.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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