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Study: Giraffes are socially complex, misunderstood

Giraffes are as socially complex as elephants and killer whales, according to a new study. File Photo by Debbie Hill/ UPI
Giraffes are as socially complex as elephants and killer whales, according to a new study. File Photo by Debbie Hill/ UPI
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Aug. 3 (UPI) -- Giraffes are socially complex as elephants, but their communication has been misunderstood, a new study reveals.

The largest hoofed herbivorous grazing animal of the African region still living was once thought to have no social structure since they spent a disproportionate part of the day feeding compared to other grazing or browsing animals.

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But studies in the last two decades started to suggest they were more complex. A study published Wednesday in Wiley Online Library has further defined giraffe society, outlining the underpinning of social mechanisms of the non-random social organization of giraffes.

With giraffe populations declining in the last 40 years, researchers say that properly understanding their social organization lifespan could help improve conservation efforts.

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"It is baffling to me that such a large, iconic and charismatic African species has been understudied for so long," study co-author Zoe Muller said in a press release.

"This paper collates all the evidence to suggest that giraffes are actually a highly complex social species, with intricate and high-functioning social systems, potential comparable to elephants, cetaceans and chimpanzees," said Muller, a graduate student in the University of Bristol's School of Biological Sciences.

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Reviewing 404 previous studies on giraffe behavior and social organization, the researchers tested two hypotheses of giraffe communities.

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First, researchers sought to establish if they have a complex cooperative social system. This would be based on a stable group of females, offspring that stay in their natal group all or part of their lives, support by non-mothers in rearing young and non-reproductive females in the group.

Second, they looked to determine if giraffes form matrilineal societies based on male dispersal, female philopatry, assistance in raising or protecting offspring and individual benefits from social foraging.

The researchers found that giraffes have both a complex cooperative social system and matrilineal societies.

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Distress behaviors in giraffes following the death of a herd member, according to the researchers, were similar to elephants, as was spending up to 30% of their lives in a post-reproductive state.

The study also revealed that giraffes must also have complex communication systems to regulate their social interactions, but "giraffe communication systems are poorly understood."

With giraffe numbers down about 40% since 1985, the animals have been declared extinct in between seven and nine countries, and are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, according to the researchers. "Recognizing that giraffe have a complex cooperative social system and live in matrilineal societies will further our understanding of their behavioral ecology and conservation needs," researchers wrote in the study.

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"It is also critical to understand the role of older/dominant dark males and post-reproductive females in giraffe society, as their preservation -- or selective removal -- may have important fitness consequences for the population," they wrote.

The giraffe population has been threatened by habitat loss, disease and poaching.

In 2019, the World Wildlife Congress voted to crack down on international trade of giraffe parts, imposing restrictions to ensure giraffe parts are legally acquired and that exporting countries have determined the trade is not detrimental to the species survival.

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