As It Happens·Q&A

Neck-to-neck combat: Giraffes fight fair when they spar, researchers find

Jessica Granweiler was surprised by the intricate rules that male giraffes seem to follow when they are sparring with each other. For instance, giraffes are either "lefties" or "righties" when they bash necks, and they will respect their opponent's side preference.

Researcher says giraffes don't pick on the weak and are 'very gentle' when they spar

University of Manchester masters student Jessica Granweiler was surprised by the intricate rules that male giraffes seem to follow when they are sparring with each other. Giraffes, she found, are 'lefties' or 'righties' when they bash necks, and they respect their opponents side preference. (Jessica Granweiler et al.)

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It's a rare occurrence to see giraffes fight, but when master's student Jessica Granweiler observed their skirmishes up close, she discovered that it was much more complex than it first appeared.

Oftentimes, she found, giraffes engage in fair and honourable sparring matches with one another — without any intent to injure.

"None of them had any injuries whatsoever during their sparring events," Granweiler told As It Happens host Carol Off. "Whereas during fighting, they do."

In an aggressive fight, giraffes throw punches with the force of their large necks and can stab each other with their ossicones — the small horn-like knobs on their heads.

"You will see males with broken horns or with patches of bare skin on their bum, in the back, because of the fighting," she said. 

Granweiler and her colleagues went to South Africa's Mogalakwena River Reserve to record the different kinds of fights giraffes engaged in from Nov. 2016 to May 2017. They published their findings in the Ethology journal last month, distinguishing sparring as a fair fight, or practice for an eventual brawl.

She spoke with Off about their work. Here is part of their conversation.

Jessica, people may have seen a bit of a giraffe fight in the odd nature documentary. But what is it like to watch giraffes getting this aggressive when you're close up and watching them?

It's very impressive. You definitely don't want to get too close. It's like two towers getting against each other. It's very impressive.

But when you see them ... it's quite beautiful at the same time, isn't it? The way they move their necks — the way they use their neck as a weapon against the other. Just tell us a bit about what it looks like to see two giraffes in a fight.

Their necks get entangled and it's like this slow dance ... because they sort of take turns in swinging their necks.... They're very gentle about it. It's really nice.

They're much smarter than I think we give them credit for and they're absolutely beautiful creatures.- Jessica Granweiler, study author

They're gentle about it, but ... there's different kinds of fighting that they do, different kinds of sparring and jousting. Tell us what you have noticed, what you observed, about the different levels of aggression.

Male giraffes, they do fight quite aggressively when it comes to fighting for a mate, and that's probably what most people would have seen on TV. They fight each other and they get injured, and they fight each other to the floor.

And then there's sparring — which is what my study was on — which is basically like play fighting [or] play wrestling.

[In sparring,] the males do sort of the same movements, so they [are] still standing against each other, swinging their necks and hitting each other with their horns, but it's much more gentle and it's just aiming to practice [with] each other. 

We noticed that most of the males chose other males that were similar in size with them to spar.... We suggested that it's probably due to [building] better practice [skills] — you gain better practice skills when you fight with someone that's close to you in age and size.

RAW: Giraffes Sun and Lovely spar

2 months ago
Two giraffes, named Sun and Lovely by researchers, spar in South Africa. Researchers discovered they tend to choose opponents who are similar to themselves 1:48

You also observed that there seems to be some kind of left-right thing with giraffes, right? As far as the way they're going to swing their neck, either to the left or the right. What did you make of that?

I started to study the behaviour just in general, trying to look at who was sparring against who, and then I started to notice that some of the individuals seem to always spar on the same side. So I tried to take a note of that. And then I realized it was actually a very strong trend. 

Like you and I would be left- or right-handed, they preferred to swing their necks and have their opponents always on the same side. And that was significant, like that was the case in every single fight they took part of, no matter what ... and it was really interesting because that sort of defines what position they took during their sparring bouts. 

Basically, if they preferred the same side, then they would have to face head to tail, whereas if they [preferred] different sides, they would face the same direction during the sparring bouts. 

Sometimes, during the sparring, they would find themselves on the wrong side because of the momentum of the swings of the neck — and then they would immediately stop. Both of them.

There was no cheating. They would immediately stop and then take back the right position and then continue their sparring.

Granweiler observed giraffes sparring at the small Mogalakwena River Reserve in South Africa from Nov. 2016 to May 2017. (Jessica Granweiler et al. )

How fascinating.

There's this mutual respect of both of them, because they could easily say, well, 'I don't care, I'm still on my good side, let's continue.' But no, they mutually respected, stopped and then resumed. 

The preference in sides seems to occur at a very young age, because one of the males that was part of my study [had] turned a teenager. 

I only observed teenagers and adults because the babies and juveniles would just be playing around their moms and not take part of this. But there was one male that from the beginning of his teenage years, he was a lefty ... and he already knew this from the first time he sparred. 

So it must be something, you know, that they gain [as] kids, similar to children that start drawing and playing with tubes and then realize, "Oh, this right hand is stronger," or something. 

I'm sure that you had a great affection for giraffes before you started your study, otherwise you wouldn't have done this, but have you developed a new appreciation of them having watched ... this dance and these rules and this respect that they have with their fighting?

Oh, definitely. I mean, I didn't know much about giraffes before I started. But then I discovered that they're this really intelligent animal, very social compared to what we thought at the time. And that they clearly have a lot more rules and mutual respect in their social groups than we thought. 

They're much smarter than I think we give them credit for and they're absolutely beautiful creatures. One just needs to be in their presence to understand how you just feel very humble, but at the same time amazed.

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A edited for length and clarity.



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