1. Until around 2000, giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis were believed to have no social structure. Despite a resurgence of interest in giraffe behaviour in around 2010, most studies are of isolated populations, making it difficult to draw general conclusions. Although it is now well established that giraffe social organisation is non-random, there is little consensus as to what influences preferred and avoided associations or the underpinning mechanisms.
2. We test two hypotheses: first, giraffe have a complex cooperative social system, exhibited by 1) stable groups of females, 2) offspring that stay in their natal group for part or all of their lives, 3) support by non-mothers in rearing young, and 4) non-reproductive females in the group; and second, giraffe form matrilineal societies, evidenced by 1) male dispersal, 2) female philopatry, 3) assistance in raising or protecting offspring, and 4) individual benefits gained from social foraging.
3. We reviewed 404 papers on giraffe behaviour and social organisation; captive studies were included where they supplemented information from free-living populations.
4. We show that giraffe exhibit many of the features typical of mammals with complex cooperative social systems and matrilineal societies. However, the social complexity hypothesis posits that such species also require complex communication systems to regulate interactions and relations among group members; giraffe communication systems are poorly understood.
5. Quantifying the fitness and survival benefits of the giraffe’s social organisation is necessary to ensure its long-term survival. Giraffe numbers have declined by 40% since 1985, they have been declared extinct in seven (possibly nine) countries and are listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. We identify research areas that will advance our understanding of giraffe behaviour and conservation requirements