Giraffes surprise biologists yet again

May 18, 2018, University of Bristol
Group of giraffes in Kenya. Credit: Zoe Muller

New research from the University of Bristol has highlighted how little we know about giraffe behaviour and ecology.

It is commonly accepted that group sizes of animals increase when there is a risk of predation, since larger group sizes reduce the risk of individuals being killed, and there are 'many eyes' to spot any potential predation risk.

Now, in the first study of its kind, Bristol Ph.D. student Zoe Muller from the School of Biological Sciences has found that this is not true for giraffes, and that the size of groups is not influenced by the presence of predators.

Zoe Muller said: "This is surprising, and highlights how little we know about even the most basic aspects of giraffe ."

This study investigates how the grouping behaviour of giraffes differed in response to numerous factors, such as predation risk, habitat type and the characteristics of individuals.

Habitat type had some effect on group size, but the main effect on group was in the behaviour of adult females, who were found to be in smaller groups when they had calves.

This is contrary to another popular belief that female giraffes form large groups to communally care for their young—this study, published this week in the Journal of Zoology presents the first evidence to show that actually, the opposite is true.

Group of juvenile giraffes. Credit: Zoe Muller

Giraffe populations have declined by 40 percent in the last 30 years, and there are now thought to be fewer than 98,000 individuals remaining in the wild.

In recognition of their drastic decline in the wild, they have recently been listed as "Vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation in Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.

However, conservation review is ongoing due to current debate over their taxonomic status, since some subspecies may be even more at risk of extinction than is currently recognised.

Zoe Muller added: "This research adds another important piece to the puzzle of understanding how giraffes live in the wild.

"Giraffes are a threatened species, suffering ongoing decline across Africa, and this research highlights how they are actually an incredibly misunderstood species. We can only manage and conserve giraffe populations effectively if we properly understand their behaviour and ecology, which we are only just beginning to do.

"Despite their prominence, giraffes have been significantly understudied in comparison to other charismatic African mammals. "The common misconception is that giraffes are 'everywhere' in Africa, yet recent research efforts have highlighted the fragmented and rapidly declining nature of their populations.

"Their recent listing as 'Vulnerable' on the IUCN is a valuable step towards recognising their potential to become extinct, and more research is sorely needed to understand the threats and challenges they face in the wild."

The next steps for this research will be to replicate the findings in other areas of Africa. This is one case study from East Africa, and more research is needed to see if the same effects are observed in other giraffe populations. Results can be used to understand how the management of habitats, environmental and social variables can support the conservation of giraffe populations.

Explore further: Study investigates impact of lions living alongside giraffe populations

More information: Z. Muller et al. Group sizes of giraffes in Kenya: the influence of habitat, predation and the age and sex of individuals, Journal of Zoology (2018). DOI: 10.1111/jzo.12571

Related Stories

Giraffes 'threatened with extinction'

December 8, 2016

Wild giraffe numbers have plummeted by 40 percent in the past three decades and the species is now "vulnerable" to extinction, a top conservation body said Thursday.

Recommended for you

Why some animals still have a penis bone

September 19, 2018

A team of researchers affiliated with several institutions in the U.K. has found a possible explanation for why some animals still have a penis bone—"prolonged intromission." In their paper published in Proceedings of the ...

Microplastics may enter foodchain through mosquitoes

September 19, 2018

Mosquito larvae have been observed ingesting microplastics that can be passed up the food chain, researchers said Wednesday, potentially uncovering a new way that the polluting particles could damage the environment.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.