Giraffes are more socially complex than most people think, engage in cooperative parenting

BRISTOL, United Kingdom — Giraffes are among the more popular animals humans love to watch, both in the wild and in animal preserves. Despite the popularity of these long-necked natives of Africa, scientists say little research has been done into the social structures of these animals. Now, a new study finds giraffes are much more socially complex than anyone could have imagined.

Researchers from the University of Bristol say giraffes actually display a social structure that is very similar to elephants. Until now, scientists have thought that giraffes had very little social complexity after birth.

The new study reveals that giraffes, especially female giraffes, actually spend a good portion of their lives taking care of their children and even their grandchildren. In fact, study author Zoe Muller finds giraffes spend 30 percent of their lives in a “post-reproductive state.”

In comparison to other species in the wild, socially complex animals like elephants and killer whales spend between 23 and 35 percent of their lives in a similar role. During this time, researchers believe post-menopausal giraffes help increase the survival chances of their offspring and later generations.

Giraffes and the ‘grandmother hypothesis’

Muller says many mammals, including humans, typically subscribe to what scientists call the “grandmother hypothesis.” This theory suggests that older females of a species engage in cooperative parents, helping to raise multiple generations of their offspring. This helps to ensure the survival and continuation of their genes. Study authors believe giraffes likely take part in the same activities during this post-reproductive period.

“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,” Muller says in a university release.

“I hope that this study draws a line in the sand, from which point forwards, 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.”

“Recognizing that giraffes have a complex cooperative social system and live in matrilineal societies will further our understanding of their behavioral ecology and conservation needs,” Muller adds.

“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 study appears in the journal Mammal Review.

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