The African guinea fowl lives in complex societies with different social groups, which was previously only seen in mammals with large brains, such as humans, elephants and monkey species. A team of British, German, Kenyan and Swiss biologists describes the societies in the scientific journal Current Biology .

The discovery shows that apparently non-mammals with a smaller brain are also able to remember social relationships with other animals and thus form a social hierarchy.

These types of societies arise when animals form groups with permanent 'members'. These members associate themselves in different ways with other groups, creating a kind of social status.

Because of this, animals must be able to remember who is in their own and the other group, which requires a large brain. However, the guinea fowl has relatively small brains, also compared to other bird species. It is already known that birds live in groups, but these groups often have no connections with other animal groups, which appears to be the case with the guinea fowl.

A group of vulture guinea fowls in Kenya. (Photo: Danai Papageorgiou)

Groups have permanent members and sometimes come together

The companies have permanent members, but sometimes come together to search for food or sleep, for example. These groups keep the same members and sometimes come together to search for food.

Group members stay together, but sometimes go out in pairs to reproduce. Couples leave their groups for one to two months to lay eggs and hatch, and then return to their social group.

Occasionally different groups came together to spend the night. At some gathering places, sometimes two to five different groups appeared to sleep together.

It is not yet clear whether there is a hierarchy

It is still too early to speak of a social hierarchy between the groups of guinea fowl, the biologist Damien Farine involved in this study explains to when asked. To be sure this, many more observations are needed.

However, it has already been established that there is a hierarchy in a group, with birds that are dominant over fellow group members. At the top of the ranking is an alpha male, with a beta male directly below it.

Such an individual ranking has also been observed in chicken populations, Farine adds. Whether this ranking can also be found at the group level with the guinea fowl is still to be determined.