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Africa Geographic Travel
giraffes
Maasai giraffes in Maasai Mara National Reserve

Giraffes are quite sociable creatures – a dynamic that is riveting to witness when on an African safari. So sociable that they get together with other giraffes and form little groups that join up and disband throughout the day, based on unknown giraffe social cues. This socialisation is referred to as fission-fusion dynamics, which sounds like something an atom would do, but is actually what giraffes do. But how are these bonds formed? Researchers studying Maasai giraffes have tried to find out.


Giraffes – the social butterflies

Females, in particular, like to form close-knit communities with other possibly related females, whereas the young males tend to disperse and form loose coalitions (bachelor gangs), and the older males are more independent and roam alone, searching for receptive females (the equivalent, I imagine, of a mature gent cruising for ladies).

Girl giraffes need their best friends, as they have higher survival rates when hanging together in herds. Also, hanging out with the girls means that mom has a babysitter to take care of the kids when she wants to get a drink at the waterhole. Studies show that females share nonparental offspring care in giraffe ‘creches’ (aka babysitting).

Africa Geographic Travel

Let’s get together, yeah yeah yeah

A group of researchers studying social associations in Maasai giraffe speculated that these females forming long-term associations were related. This could imply that staying with aunts and nieces confers greater fitness (increased survival). The authors decided to see if females might choose who they hang out with based on their appearance – according to their spot variation. As spot pattern is heritable, related giraffes should also have similar spot patterns.

So, the first thing to know about giraffe spot patterns is that there is an exceptionally high variation in spot patterns in the Masai giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi). The second thing to know is that the giraffe has exceptional visual acuity among mammals based on the anatomy of their eye and adaptations of their visual genes. Communication among giraffes could be primarily visual. The characteristic coat colour of a giraffe is reddish-brown spots set within a network of white lines. As their eyes are particularly sensitive to red pigments, this could mean that their excellent eyesight allows them to discriminate between individual giraffes.

Masai giraffes in Amboseli National Park, Kenya
Africa Geographic Travel

What beautiful spots you have, dear

To understand if a giraffe chose friends with similar looks (spotty coats), the researchers first had to describe the differing spot markings of different giraffes. The authors described the spot pattern of 399 free-ranging adult female Masai giraffes inhabiting a large, unfenced landscape in Tanzania. They chose to measure ten traits of all the spots within one region on the flank of the giraffes and recorded characteristics such as the number, circularity, solidity, size, area, and orientation of spots. They then drove around the landscape to see which females were grouped.

They found that the shape of spots was mainly a predictor of female pairing or grouping. Females preferred to mingle with other females of similar spot shapes. Thus, they conclude that female giraffe associations may be based on kinship as reflected by heritable spot traits. The visual cue of coat spot pattern may enable kin recognition in general and potentially individual identification of familiar giraffes. The authors hasten to add, “…we do not suggest that giraffes are mathematically quantifying the shape of the individual spots of other giraffes they encounter, but they may be able to rapidly assess the general ‘gestalt’ of the patterns.”

It’s an exciting theory, and further research would identify whether giraffes are using smell to identify relatives (and not spots) or whether these similarities are genetic in origin. Meanwhile, I will enjoy the idea that giraffes choose besties based on their sense of dress; polka dots are the ‘in-thing’ in giraffe fashion this year!


Want to see a Masai giraffe in the wild? Search for the best ready-made Kenyan safaris on offer right now.


Reference 

Morandi, K. et al. (2022), Phenotypic matching by spot pattern potentially mediates female giraffe social associations. Journal of Zoology, 318: 147-157.

Resources

Read everything there is to know about giraffe here,  and learn more about the different species of giraffe.

Giraffe social structure is as complex as elephant. Read about their intricate levels of communication and stable kinship here.

The giraffe is an endless source of fascination for scientists. A new study reveals that giraffes are capable of statistical inference – read more here.

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