The social interactions of wildlife have long fascinated scientists. Social circles, a trait we normally associate exclusively with humans and primates, play a vital role in the animal kingdom. Co-existence helps animals thrive through enhancing protection from predators, providing care for young, and sharing resources. New evidence suggests that in addition to these benefits, social circles also decrease stress for female giraffes, leading to decreased mortality. Much like their human counterparts, social interactions are an important part of maintaining stress levels through companionship and contribute to long-term survival.
Giraffes are known to be social animals, living in herds of around 10 to 20 individuals. While males are more distant and only seek social grouping for mating purposes, female giraffes form social connections. Females often do not engage in direct grooming or care of other females, as observed in primates, but instead appear to peacefully coexist with other females and show preferences for interacting with certain females over others. While engaging in social interaction allows the females to alternate predator watching duties and better ensure the survival of young giraffes, new research published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B indicates that these social circles serve a greater purpose beyond just nurturing young.
Using identity-recognition software, first author Dr. Monica Bond and her team were able to recognize sociability patterns in individual female giraffes in Tanzania and track variations in mortality rates. Their research uncovered the importance of gregariousness, the average number of females each individual was observed interacting with, in explaining variation in female adult survival rates. Of the 512 adult female giraffes in the study population, the best predictor of survival was if they were typically found around other females. The team controlled for factors like nutrition, soil types, and proximity to humans, concluding that female social groups, particularly those of at least three other individuals, are predictive of survival rates. The authors hypothesized that the formation of social connections lowers the stress levels of individual female giraffes, allowing them to transfer care of young to other females and ensure greater amounts of sleep over the course of their lifetime, which ultimately decreases mortality.
Dr. Monica Bond is the Founder and Principal Scientist at the Wild Nature Institute. Her research focuses on the sociality and demography of giraffes in Tanzania, the spatial disruption of ungulates, California fire ecology and the use of space by mammals in grasslands. She received her PhD in Ecology at the University of Zurich and her MS in Wildlife Science from Oregon State University.
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