Tag Archives: giraffe

When giraffes fight, they do so honorably

Sparring orientation. Giraffe bulls pictured sparring in either (a) a head-to-head position or (b) a head-to-tail position. Credit: Ethology.

You’ll rarely see the tallest mammals in the world fight among themselves, but when they do, things can get really ugly. When males engage in a brawl, whether to solve mating or territory rights, they use the momentum of their long necks to powerfully thrust with the horn-like structures that cover their heads. If the target is hit, the opponent can be severely wounded and even killed.

Giraffes take these fights seriously and won’t engage in serious jousts unless they don’t have a choice. And, like professional fighters, the males will often practice by sparring with eager opponents from the same herd.

Intriguingly, a new study that observed many of these contests found there was virtually no bullying, and the giraffes even seem to have ‘rules’ that humans may judge as honorable. Powerful and large males don’t take advantage of their status by picking on someone younger and smaller. Instead, the giraffes spar only with opponents in their league.

Sportsmanship in the animal kingdom

Jessica Granweiler, a master’s student at the University of Manchester in England, and colleagues closely followed giraffe social behavior at the Mogalakwena River Reserve in South Africa for half a year between 2016 and 2017. They videotaped friendly sparrings, then analyzed who fought who and how they fought.

Like human boxers, some males are right-pawed and others are left-pawed. But unlike humans, righties and lefties are evenly distributed. The preference for which side to fight from was always respected by the opponents. If it happened that two opponents were both righties, they would match up head to tail. There was no instance of cheating identified by the researchers.

A brutal giraffe fight. This is what it looks like when the males mean business and are ready to die for mating rights. During friendly sparring, though, the males are chill and are careful not to hurt each other.

Sparring matches were most common among up-and-coming young males. They almost always chose opponents their own size, like humans in professional fights match up by weight class.

Being inexperienced, the younger males were also more experimental with their technique, practicing head swings against their opponent’s chests and rear ends.

Older males sparred too, but much less often. When they did, they tended to press their necks together as if they were wrestling. This behavior may be owed to the fact that the males are cognizant they may hurt each other if they ‘pulled out the big guns’. It’s also a way to gauge each other’s strength without engaging in full-blown battles.

The older, high-status males also often acted as referees when the younglings sparred, breaking up fights when they sensed things could get out of hand. It’s not clear though if the adults are genuinely concerned with the safety of the young males in their herd. It may be just a clever way to assert dominance, communicating “Remember who’s the boss here.”

“Taken together, these results support the suggestion that sparring functions principally to provide maturing males a means of testing their competitive ability without escalating to full-scale fights. Additionally, mature bulls intervened on young adults possibly to disable any winner effect achieved by the latter, with the most dominant bull being responsible for the majority of interventions,” the authors wrote in the journal Ethology.

Having a better handle on giraffe social behavior and hierarchies may prove important in conservation efforts. For instance, sparring behavior may inform zookeepers how to better manage young males. These findings may also explain why some populations in Africa are larger or smaller in certain areas: if a dominant male controls all the fights in a herd, he may be the only mating. When fewer males mate, the population tends to shrink.

“A more nuanced understanding of how social and environmental factors shape interactions among individuals, such as sparring, will improve our understanding and management of this charismatic animal,” the scientists concluded.

More than just a pretty neck: Grandmother giraffes lend a hand in raising grandkids

Giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) are the tallest living animal and a conspicuous member of the African fauna. But until recently, they were thought to have no social structure as well as fleeting, weak social relationships.

That may not be the case, though. A new study has shown that their social organization is much more advanced, even comparable to elephants or chimpanzees — with grandmothers playing a role in raising grandkids. 

Image credit: Flickr / Derek Keats

Zoe Muller from the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences reviewed over 400 studies on giraffes’ behavior and social organization. Along with co-author Steven Harris, they found that giraffes have a complex, cooperative social system that has features of a matrilineal organization – including the significance of grandmothering. 

The grandmother hypothesis is actually an important idea in biology. It suggests that even after their fertile period, females have a long post-menopausal state because, in their role as grandmothers, they can improve the group’s resilience. By contrast, less socially complex mammals may die once their reproductive functions fade.

This idea has been theorized and to some extended demonstrated for several complex mammals such as killer whales, which spend around sixteen years post-menopause, similar to the post-reproductive span of women in hunter-gatherer societies. A 2019 study found that young whales that lost a grandmother were 4.5 times more likely to die than their peers, indicating just how much resilience grandmothers can offer.

This would imply that the older giraffe females are helping the group find resources in difficult times, Muller told The Guardian. “Complex social animals gain huge survival benefits from older females hanging around after they are done child-bearing,” she added.

A post-reproductive state

The study from Bristol University showed that giraffes spend up to 30% of their lives in a post-reproductive state, and during that time they provide crucial benefits for their offspring’s offspring. In a nutshell, they showed features of co-parenting with a grandmother. It’s the first time such a complex social structure has been suggested for giraffes. 

“It is baffling to me that such a large, iconic and charismatic African species has been under-studied for so long,” Muller told Cosmos. “This paper collates all the evidence to suggest that giraffes are actually a highly complex social species, with intricate and high-functioning social systems, potentially comparable to elephants, cetaceans and chimpanzees.”

The researchers also found other features on life in a giraffe society, which suggest the mammals have a complex and female-driven social structure. For example, the offspring stay in their natal groups for much or all of their lives. Also, non-mothers help mothers to rear their young and females to spend their lives in cooperative groups, while males are dispersed. 

Muller and Harris hope their findings may offer hope for the conservation of giraffes, as their population has declined about 40% in 30 years. There are 68,000 left in the wild that face multiple threats, from habitat loss to poaching. They used to live in much of the African savanna but they are now scattered in clumps across the continent. 

“Conservation measures will be more successful if we have an accurate understanding of the species’ behavioural ecology,” said Muller. “If we view giraffes as a highly socially complex species, this also raises their ‘status’ towards being a more complex and intelligent mammal that is increasingly worthy of protection.”

The study was published in the journal Mammal Review. 

Giraffes quietly dropped down to ‘Endangered list’

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently updated its Red List of Threatened Species. Two giraffe subspecies are now listed as critically endangered, and one as endangered.

Image credits: Rex Boggs / Flickr.

Giraffes are some of the most bizarre creatures on Earth — and they’re also some of the most popular ones. Over the past few years, giraffes have been undergoing a ‘silent extinction’ — although populations in some areas are growing slightly, others are declining at an alarming rate. Until 2016, all giraffe populations were classified as ‘least concern’, but later that year, the global Red List of threatened species classified them as ‘vulnerable’, which means that the population has declined by more than 30% over the past three generations. Since then, things have only gotten worse.

There are 9 subspecies of giraffes. Out of them, one is stable and two are improving slightly. The other five are declining at an alarming rate. The culprits are quite familiar: the rapid growth of human populations and intensive agriculture has led to massive habitat destruction and fragmentation. However, civil war has also taken a massive toll.

“In these war torn areas, in northern Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia in the border area with South Sudan, essentially the giraffes are war fodder, a large animal, extremely curious that can feed a lot of people,” Dr. Julian Fennessy, who co-chairs the IUCN giraffe specialist group, told the BBC.

Unfortunately, there is little conservationists can do to limit the effects of this war, although conservation campaigns can still be successful. However, there is a general lack of awareness, Fennessy adds.

“Whilst giraffe are commonly seen on safari, in the media, and in zoos, people – including conservationists – are unaware that these majestic animals are undergoing a silent extinction. While giraffe populations in southern Africa are doing just fine, the world’s tallest animal is under severe pressure in some of its core ranges across East, Central and West Africa. It may come as a shock that three of the currently recognised nine subspecies are now considered ‘Critically Endangered’ or ‘Endangered’, but we have been sounding the alarm for a few years now,” Fennessy added in a separate press release.

To make matters even more complicated, while the IUCN considers giraffes to be one species with nine subspecies, recent genetic analyses have found that there are four distinct species of giraffe — with potentially “immense” consequences for conservation.

The Northern giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis (which includes the ‘Critically Endangered’ Kordofan and Nubian giraffe, and the ‘Vulnerable’ West African giraffe) and Reticulated giraffe Giraffa reticulata can be considered some of the most threatened large mammals in the wild, with less than 5,200 and 15,785 individuals remaining in the wild, respectively.

 “Working collaboratively with governments and other partners, we feel that our proactive measures are saving giraffe in some areas before it is too late,” said Arthur Muneza, the East-Africa Coordinator of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation.

Giraffe patterns aren’t random — and they’re quite important

A new study suggests that giraffe spot distribution isn’t random — it’s inherited genetically on the mother side. Furthermore, it could have a big impact on the calves’ likelihood of survival.

Not all spots are alike.

When it comes to animal patterns, the likes of zebras and tigers are the most famous, but giraffes also have their own patterns. It’s not as noticeable, but it’s quite important for the giraffes — although this is the first study to examine what these patterns are for.

Like many other studies, this stemmed from pure curiosity.

“We were inspired by so many people’s natural curiosity about giraffe spots and where the patterns come from. It was a consistent theme of question we heard when talking about giraffes,” Derek Lee, one of the authors of the study, told NPR. “We began looking for answers in the literature and found nobody had measured complex mammal coat patterns like spots.”

So Lee and his team used a hi-tech approach: they used image analysis software to note the differences between spot traits of wild Masai mother giraffes and their offspring in Tanzania. This comparison was made because first have a rather limited area, whereas the latter roam free around vast landscapes.

They tracked 31 sets of mother-calf pairs, analyzing the general shape and distribution of the dark spots, as well as whether these factors impact a young giraffe’s survival chances. They photographed the same 258 juveniles six times a year for four years.

“Giraffe coat markings are highly complex and variable and it has been hypothesized that variation in coat patterns most likely affects fitness by camouflaging neonates against visually hunting predators,” the study notes.

“We demonstrated that some characteristics of giraffe coat spot shape were likely to be heritable, as measured by mother-offspring regression.”

Newborn giraffes with large and irregularly shaped spots survive better during their first few months of life. Image credits: Derek Lee, Wild Nature Institute/Penn State.

They found that things such as spot roundness and smoothness were passed on maternally. These traits also were a significant indicator of a calf’s chances to survive, due to increasing or decreasing its camouflage ability. Calves with large and irregularly-shaped spots were more likely to survive their first months of life, as they were presumably able to better mimic the surrounding landscape.

“This increased survival could reflect better camouflage of these young giraffes, but it also could be related to other survival-enhancing factors, such as temperature regulation or visual communication,” researchers explain.

Of course, other traits such as good genes and maternal investment play a much stronger role in calf survival rates.

The team hopes that ultimately their work can aid other scientists study the heritability and influence of these traits, and ultimately, understand what the full purpose of the giraffes’ spotted pattern really is.

The study was published in PeerJ.

Decennatherium.

Newly described genus hints at the evolutionary roots of the giraffe

A new, extinct large giraffid genus has been described by Spanish researchers, offering a new glimpse into the evolutionary path of the long-necked herbivores.

Decennatherium.

Skeletal sketch, size comparison to modern human, and artist’s reconstruction of the newly described genus. 

Modern giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) stand out instantly, with their tall necks and bony osccicones — the horn-like protuberances on the giraffe’s head. By virtue of this alone, you could think they’ve had a completely different evolutionary path than other animals, but that’s not true. They’re part of a larger family of ruminants known as Giraffidae and their closest living relative is the okapi (Okapia johnstoni), which is a pretty regular looking animal.

However, knowing its family ties today doesn’t mean we know how the giraffe came to be. Researchers think that Giraffidae have been around since the Miocene epoch, with over 30 extinct species found and described up to now. A lack of fossilized skulls, the paper notes, has impeded biologists from establishing the evolutionary relationships between them.

Getting ahead

The new genus, named Decennatherium rex sp. nov., could help bridge some of those gaps in our understanding. It was described by a team led by María Ríos from the National Museum of Natural History, Spain from a fossilized skeleton that is “unusually” complete. Although not yet dated, stratigraphic position suggests the fossil originates sometime in the late Miocene.

The team performed a full phylogenetic analysis on Decennatherium and follow it up with the “the first phylogenetic reconstruction of the [Graffidae] group”. They report that the genus could represent the most basal branch (i.e. common ancestor) of a clade of now-extinct giraffid groups, and is likely the earliest-evolving example of the four osscicone layout seen today, with two over the eyes and two larger, ridged ones at the back of the head. This layout is shared by all species in the clade, lending weight to the hypothesis that Decennatherium is the extinct clade’s common ancestor or at least very close to it in evolutionary terms.

The clade includes Sivatheres, the largest known giraffid, and Samotheres, whose appearance was somewhere in between that of okapis and giraffes. Bryan Shorrocks, a professor in the Environment Department at the University of York, notes in his book The Giraffe: Biology, Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour that a subspecies of the latter, S. africanum, is a strong candidate as the ancestor of the modern giraffe.

The inclusion of the Decennatherium in the sivathere-samothere clade would extend its timespan back to the early Miocene and its range over the Iberian peninsula, the team notes, which would make it the most successful and long-lived clade among the giraffids.

The paper “Evolution and systematics of the late miocene spanish Giraffidae (Mammalia, Ruminantia, Pecora)” has been published on the scientific repository RODERIC.

Giraffes are facing a silent extinction – and so are other, undiscovered species

A new report published by the IUCN shows that the emblematic giraffe is facing a threatening decline. The same study reveals that numerous other species of animals are nearing extinction before we even get a chance to study them.

Image credits: Pixabay.

Giraffe decline

Giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis), one of the world’s most recognizable animals and the tallest land mammal, is now officially threatened with extinction. The species underwent a dramatic 40% decline since 1985. The main reason, as it so often happens, is humans.

“The growing human population is having a negative impact on many giraffe subpopulations,” the statement said.

Giraffes, widespread in several areas of Africa, are pushed back by human development, and their habitats are threatened by agriculture, mining, civil unrest and illegal hunting.

The IUCN has passed a resolution calling for increased protection of giraffes and okapis. They say that while many people know and love giraffes, they aren’t familiar with the struggles the species faces.

“Whilst giraffe are commonly seen on safari, in the media and in zoos, people—including conservationists—are unaware that these majestic animals are undergoing a silent extinction,” Julian Fenessy of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation said in a statement.

We’re killing them before we even know them

The same report indicates another major issue: we’re wiping out populations of animals before we even know they exist. The IUCN statement describes 700 newly recognized bird species, 11% of which are already threatened with extinction.

“Many species are slipping away before we can even describe them,” says IUCN Director General Inger Andersen. “This IUCN Red List update shows that the scale of the global extinction crisis may be even greater than we thought. Governments gathered at the UN biodiversity summit in Cancun have the immense responsibility to step up their efforts to protect our planet’s biodiversity — not just for its own sake but for human imperatives such as food security and sustainable development.”

Usually, we’d be happy when new animal species are described but this time, it comes with a dire warning: no one is safe from human activity, not one corner of the Earth has remained untouched by humanity. We are threatening animals we haven’t even properly discovered – and some of them, we’re killing off entirely. Thirteen of the newly recognized bird species enter the IUCN Red List as Extinct – and one can only guess how many other species went extinct without us ever knowing.

“Unfortunately, recognizing more than 700 ‘new’ species does not mean that the world’s birds are faring better,” says Dr Ian Burfield, BirdLife’s Global Science Coordinator. “As our knowledge deepens, so our concerns are confirmed: unsustainable agriculture, logging, invasive species and other threats — such as the illegal trade highlighted here — are still driving many species towards extinction.”

Source: International Union for Conservation of Nature.

There’s more than just one species of giraffe

A new genetic study has revealed that we might have been looking at giraffes the wrong way all along.

This is a Nubian giraffe in Murchison Falls NP, Uganda.
Credit: Julian Fennessy

Until now, biologists thought there’s only one species of giraffe, but the latest and most comprehensive genetic analysis showed that there are actually four giraffe species. The genetic differences between the species are as big as those between brown and polar bears, researchers say.

Species and subspecies

Sometimes, it’s easy to distinguish between two species, but sometimes it can be really difficult. Let’s take bears for example. There’s grizzly bears, polar bears, brown bears and several other species. They look different, they act differently and they live in other parts of the world – easy. But let’s look at dogs for instance. We all know how different dogs can look like, but the different breeds are all part of the same big species – the dog species. So how do we know when something is a different species or not?

Traditionally, members of the same species have been defined as being able to produce fertile offspring. Horses and donkeys can mate and produce offsprings, but the offspring are always infertile (mules). But there also more elegant and modern ways of figuring this out – namely, genetic analysis. In this case, researchers conducted such an analysis over giraffes and were stunned to see that giraffes were actually four species.

“We were extremely surprised, because the morphological and coat pattern differences between giraffe are limited,” says Axel Janke, a geneticist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre and Goethe University in Germany. Giraffes are also assumed to have similar ecological requirements across their range, he added, “but no one really knows, because this megafauna has been largely overlooked by science.”

About five years ago, Julian Fennessy of Giraffe Conservation Foundation in Namibia approached Janke to ask for help with genetic testing of the giraffe. They wanted to see how similar or different the giraffes in different parts of Africa were to one another. So they analyzed skin biopsies taken from 190 giraffes from all around Africa – including very dangerous areas of civil unrest.

They found four distinct species, which don’t mate with each other and have significant genetic differences. They defined the species as follows:

  • (1) southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa),
  • (2) Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi),
  • (3) reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata), and
  • (4) northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis), which includes the Nubian giraffe (G. c. camelopardalis) as a distinct subspecies. The elusive Nubian giraffe from Ethiopia and the South Sudan region was the first described some 300 years ago, Fennessy says, and is now shown to be part of the northern giraffe.

The results of the study came as a surprise. Photo by Luca Galuzzi.

The discovery can be extremely potential, especially for giraffe conservation efforts. Giraffe numbers have been going down fast in most parts of Africa, and if there are four species, then each of the species has fewer individuals, making giraffes much more endangered than we thought.

“With now four distinct species, the conservation status of each of these can be better defined and in turn added to the IUCN Red List,” Fennessy says. “Working collaboratively with African governments, the continued support of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and partners can highlight the importance of each of these dwindling species, and hopefully kick start targeted conservation efforts and internal donor support for their increased protection.

“As an example,” he adds, “northern giraffe number less than 4,750 individuals in the wild, and reticulated giraffe number less than 8,700 individuals — as distinct species, it makes them some of the most endangered large mammals in the world.”

The two urge for more research in this area to confirm their conclusions and start focusing on conservation efforts.

Journal Reference: Fennessy et al. Multi-locus Analyses Reveal Four Giraffe Species Instead of One. Current Biology, 2016 DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2016.07.036