The facts below are the work of Steffen G Prehn, Barbara E Lesser, Cecilie G Clausen, Kristin Jonck, Torben Dabelsteen from the Behavioural Ecology Group, Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark and Josefine B Brask of the above Ecology Group and the Centre for Research in Animal Behaviour, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, UK who conducted research on giraffes in the Pilanesberg National Park from 2012 to 2016. This is a summary of the research findings, published in Animal Behaviour 157 [ 2019] 95 –104.
Giraffes are strange animals. They never do anything. They are magnificent animals, but they just stand and look at you. They don’t make any noise. They don’t play. They don’t groom each other.
And never seem to interact with each other, except the slow-motion neck-pounding that the bulls engage in now and then.
Occasionally you may see them making funny head movements when they are chewing bones for their mineral contents.
They seem to ignore their fellow giraffes and seem to hang out without intent or purpose.
For many years it was assumed that they don’t have any social interactions with each other, except for mating.
It seems that this is not so. They do seem to like each other’s company.
The researchers above, have spent 16 months in the 572 km² Pilanesberg National Park, studying the social habits of around 180 individual giraffes.
I’ve often seen the research vehicles in the Park and have been jealous of the time they spend there. Just looking at animals and being paid for it. What a life!
On closer look it maybe it is not so romantic. They drove 8 – 9 hours every day! 100 km on average! For 16 months! Maybe that is too much of a good thing!
Like all good research it was well structured.
The sightings were split into the wet season and the dry season.
What were the predictions?
- In the dry, food-scarce season giraffe spend more time browsing than during the wet, food-rich season and groups will become less socially connected.
- During the wet season social connectedness would be higher due to mating behaviour and less competition for food.
- Female giraffes would be less social in the dry season due to competition for food and looking after their newborn.
So what are the results of all this research?
- Wet season:
- 56% were mixed sex groups.
- 13% were all female groups.
- 7% were all male groups
- Dry Season:
- 44% were mixed sex groups
- 18% all female groups
- 10% all male groups
- In the wet season individuals had social ties to 10 more individuals than in the dry season.
- Male and females had more social ties to the opposite sex in the wet season. Kind of makes sense if mating is on their mind.
- Females had more associates of both sexes in the wet season.
- Males had more female associates in the wet season. See above.
Because the researchers got to know the individual giraffes very well, they also looked at individual social connections between them.
- Giraffes have stable social networks, despite seasonal changes, which means that they prefer to hang out with giraffes they know.
- Group sizes were smaller in the dry season for females and larger for males.
- Males showed no seasonal difference in the social network structure. All–male groups were larger in the dry season because in the wet season, they tend to avoid other males and competitors, in the search for receptive females.
Overall results summarized:
- Male connection to other males was not really affected by seasonal changes.
- While overall social connections were affected by wet and dry seasons, the connection patterns were stable over time. Giraffes do hang out with other giraffes they know.
- While giraffes do change their behaviour during dry and wet seasons, they do maintain contact with other individual giraffes.
What could not be established was why giraffes prefer some individuals to others. It could be kinship, same age or home range. More questions that need to be researched in future.
The study was funded by the Copenhagen Zoo. The Zoo has an office at the Pilanesberg National Park, managed by Charlotte Marais, who assisted the researchers.
Mikkel Stelvig, Head of Conservation of Copenhagen Zoo, has kindly and enthusiastically supported this idea of making scientific research more available to the general reading public.