"Necking" means one thing among human beings; among the tallest creatures on Earth, it means something substantially less romantic.

One visitor got to witness the latter kind of necking firsthand on a recent trip to Kruger National Park's Mlondozi Dam, as Latest Sightings reports. Walter Becker filmed two bull giraffes vying for dominance through a pugilistic ritual entirely unique to their species: swinging their horned heads at one another's necks like cudgels.

Necking is the singular way male giraffes sort out hierarchies, as opposed to the head-butting, jousting, kicking or biting seen in many other ungulates. Most necking takes place within bachelor herds as males resolve their respective social rankings; once those are established, bulls in a given population can usually avoid actual confrontations over mating rights.

Necking bouts can fall along a broad spectrum of intensity. Many are low-grade affairs in which bulls test a rival's strength and heft by leaning and rubbing against one another. In more amped-up sparring, bulls brace their legs and bludgeon each other with wide-arcing sweeps of their horns; like boxers, they'll duck and parry to avoid direct hits.

Between evenly matched or unusually persistent contestants – say, a high-ranking bull running into an unfamiliar adversary – necking may escalate into more violent clobber-fests in which males are occasionally knocked out or even killed. Often these fiercest fights see bulls standing broadside but facing opposite directions, throwing blows not only at the opponent's neck but also his flanks and hindquarters:

Becker's footage certainly shows some vigorous clubbing going down, with heavy swings and very audible thwacks; the bulls also show off some impressive dodging moves. The brawl ends with one bull stumbling off-balance – not, it seems, outright from his opponent's strike, but from the momentum of one of his own whiplash-inducing swings (though the tottering animal does appear to have taken more of the hard knocks over the course of the match).

While the slightly shorter male was the one staying upright in this case, bigger bulls overall have a clear advantage in necking contests. Age matters, too: bulls' skulls grow more massive and knobby, and their necks longer and more robust, over time.

The notion that longer, thicker necks help bulls establish dominance and reap greater breeding success has actually been floated as an alternative explanation for how the giraffe got its elongate head-stalk (it's also been posited as an evolutionary trait for browsing (the classic hypothesis) or for keeping better track of potential predators and fellow herd members).



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