Ecological determinants of herd size in the Thornicroft’s giraffe of Zambia

Ecological factors have a pervasive impact on animal population sizes and the structure of their social systems. In a number of ungulate species, predator pressure exerts a major influence on group size. Given that giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) live in an extremely flexible social system, and that breeding is non-seasonal, they are an ideal species for examining how ecological variables contribute to fluctuations in herd size. We present an analysis of 34 years of data on a population of Thornicroft’s giraffe (G. c. thornicrofti Lydekker 1911) that reveal how herd size changes with season and habitat. Sex differences in herd size were apparent, with bulls often travelling as singletons, whereas cows were generally observed with conspecifics. Herds were larger during the wet than dry season, but herd size changed in a parallel fashion across habitats. Giraffe herds were smaller in woodland and thicket areas than in open habitats, regardless of season. We suggest that the regular fluctuations in herd size among giraffe indicate a fission ⁄ fusion social system embedded within a larger social community. We conclude that changes in herd size among giraffe reflect a dynamic process regulated by individuals adjusting the number of associates based upon an interaction of foraging, reproductive, social and antipredator strategies.

Last Updated
January 26, 2021
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