Phenotypic matching by spot pattern potentially mediates female giraffe social associations

Animal color pattern is a phenotypic trait that may mediate assortative mixing (also known as homophily), whereby similar looking individuals have stronger social associations. Masai giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi) coat spot patterns show high variation and some spot traits appear to be heritable. Giraffes also have high visual acuity, which may facilitate intraspecific communication and recognition based on spot patterns. Giraffe groupings are dynamic, merging and splitting throughout the day, but females form long-term associations. We predicted that adult female giraffes show stronger associations with other females that have similar spot pattern traits. We quantified the spot pattern characteristics of 399 adult female Masai giraffes and determined the pattern similarity among pairs (dyads) in their social network. We then tested for an association between coat pattern similarity (spot size, shape, and orientation) and dyadic association strength, and quantified assortative mixing. The strength of social associations was positively correlated with similarity in spot shape. Our results are compatible with assortativity by coat patterns that are similar between mother and offspring, potentially reflecting an effect of relatedness on both pattern similarity and female social associations. These results offer evidence that spot pattern could function as a visual cue for intraspecific communication and kin or individual recognition in a fission-fusion species.

Publish DateOctober 6, 2022
Last UpdatedOctober 6, 2022