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Getting to Know Giraffes

Dr. Muller’s sense of giraffes as secret socialites began in 2005, when she was researching her master’s thesis in Laikipia, Kenya. There to collect data on antelopes, she found herself drawn to the ganglier ungulates. “They are so weird to look at,” she said. “If somebody described them to you, you wouldn’t believe they even really existed.” In an ecosystem full of trumpeting elephant matriarchs and fast-paced cooperative lion hunts, it makes sense that the complexities of giraffe sociality have been harder to spot, said Kim VanderWaal, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota who has also studied them. Giraffes don’t communicate in ways that are obvious to us, and live quiet social lives low on visibly pally behaviors like grooming or cooperative territorial defense. The use of digital cameras, which help with tracking individuals by spot pattern, and social network analysis, which can reveal hidden associative patterns, have made it easier to tease out their relationships.