Giraffes don’t fight much, says Jessica Granweiler, a master’s student at the University of Manchester in England who studies nature’s largest mammals. If they do, watch out.
“Fighting is extremely rare because it is extremely violent,” Ms Granweiler said.
When older adult males compete for territory or mating rights, their horn-like pairs sting ossicones with the strength of their long necks and can cut into the flesh of their opponent, injuring and sometimes even killing a combatant.
But some forms of dueling with giraffes serve other purposes. In a study Published last month in the journal Ethology, Ms. Granweiler and her colleagues reported some discoveries about sparring behaviors that help giraffes establish social hierarchies. They showed that the animals did not take advantage of smaller members of their herd, but rather practiced headbutting with males of similar stature in a way that might even appear fair or honorable to a human.
Such findings could help conserve the animals’ declining populations.
Ms. Granweiler and her colleagues observed social behavior in giraffes in South Africa’s small Mogalakwena River Reserve from November 2016 to May 2017. They began recording the details of these fights — basically a who-fight-who, and how in the giraffe world.
They were surprised to find that giraffes, like humans, can be right-handed or left-handed when it comes to sparring. Even the youngest animals showed a clear preference, although unlike humans, they appeared to be evenly split between left and right.
The researchers also noted that the younger men sparred with each other more and almost always chose opponents similar in size to themselves — there wasn’t much bullying. A bar brawl effect also took place, with a sparring match appearing to infect the crowd and spark more fights around them.
The youngest males also spar slightly differently. Ms. Granweiler, a student at the time of the work, said they were probably practicing technique. They may have compared their strength to their peers as they swung their heads against each other’s chest and buttocks.
Older adults also spar, but they spent more time squeezing their necks at wrestling matches. Ms. Granweiler speculated that those interactions were assessments of each other’s strength without resorting to full-blown combat.
She also found that the males almost always respected an opponent’s preference as to which side to fight from. For example, if two links are facing up, they would match head to tail. If one opponent was a right-hander and the other a left-hander, they faced each other.
“I don’t know if it’s a mutual agreement – respect my side and I’ll respect yours,” Ms. Granweiler said. “Never have I seen a man try to cheat.”
Although the fights were fair, they sometimes had a referee. Ms. Granweiler said older, mature men occasionally broke up sparring matches between younger men. These guys may be checking their peers, or they’ve been trying to keep young firefighters from getting a little too confident.
“This is a clever way to create confusion among the lower males to maintain dominance and monopolize the females,” said Monica Bond, who studies giraffe social dynamics at the University of Zurich in Switzerland but was not involved in this. research. “Like most mammals, it’s a tough world for the boys.”
Ms Granweiler added that “It’s probably also his way of saying, ‘Remember – I’m also the strongest here.'”
dr. Bond called the article “well done,” although she noted that it studied a relatively small population with some degree of potential relatedness between the individuals. While she said the inferences were valid, it was unclear whether more stray males from a more genetically diverse population would behave differently.
Ms Granweiler said the more we know about giraffe behavior, the better we can manage the animals. For example, how and when males might fight could be important information for zoo keepers or other small wildlife sanctuaries.
dr. Bond added that these kinds of social interactions can also teach us why populations in certain areas can be larger or smaller – important knowledge as giraffe populations are shrinking in many parts of Africa.
“If the dominant male monopolizes the matings, then the effective population size is much smaller than it would be if all sexually mature males were able to mate,” she said. “These behaviors determine how much genetic diversity is passed from the males to the next generation.”