Ladies First: Wildlife Matriarchs

Humans are not the only species who designate leaders in their groups. Wildlife often have leaders within their groups for survival advantage. Some species have male leaders, while others follow the female’s orders.

Elephant. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Hershall Spradley II

Elephant. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Hershall Spradley II

Let’s take a look at a few of the strong female leaders of the animal kingdom!

Orcas

Orcas, commonly known as killer whales, can be found in every ocean on the planet. As the largest member of the dolphin family, they are smart and social creatures, usually traveling in pods. Within each pod, they establish complex social hierarchies — with females at the top.

Orcas. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, NOAA

Orcas. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, NOAA

A recent study done in part by the Center for Whale Research shows that pod leaders are often post-menopausal females, the oldest in the group. Female orcas’ reproductive ability stops when they are about 50 years old, which is also the same age when most male orcas reach the end of their lives. Yet females can continue to live for another 40 years after they pass menopause.

As the oldest members in their pods, post-menopausal females have the most life experience. Scientists reason that younger orcas, especially males, tend to follow post-menopausal females, who are frequently their mothers, because the matriarchs have a wealth of survival and ecological knowledge to share. Photographs reveal that post-menopausal females typically swim at the front of their pods and direct the pods’ movements in a variety of scenarios, including hunting.

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Elephants

https://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwshq/6841415460/in/photolist-bqy3sY-5xF7ru-9xkriP-9xks3i-9xoqUL-a1nKni-9ZF4BZ-9Zu9KR-9yTqyS-akwMUb-9wnc4P-7kBGpd-bqy35o-bqy2A3-fDtjZS-o5ijmj-bDsX7c-8ppkn5-akrjDh-o5pJVZ-o5ij5N-bDsXwZ-bDsXsX-6S6Tv9-3RJHe-gVF55R-6ynxiq-dBYJXv-bqy2Sm-5jAbAT-BmwBq-dC5b5L-o5pJXn-Bmcs8-oMgPCp-ahpdJt-7zyKLH-7DrUda-3coMzm-fz2FiA-6YXpT-9gqSjc-5tzqp2-cwMNM9-cwNaEj-7a8NTn-ant8M6-cwNejS-cwNGEA-cwNc8f

Elephants. Photo credit: USFWS

Elephants tend to form groups with their immediate relatives. Most of the time, only females will stick around, while adolescent males venture away from their birth groups. The basic family unit within elephants groups is a mother and her young, with the oldest female usually leading.

At Amboseli National Park in Kenya, researchers have studied this matriarchal pattern. Groups following matriarchs tend to have higher calf survival during tough times such as drought because older females benefit from memories of where to find food and water. A matriarch’s experience may also help her group avoid predators and be better at social discrimination.

Lemurs

Lemur. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Kerrie Best

Lemur. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Kerrie Best

Lemurs of all sort, including Coquerel’s sifaka, are unusual primates in that they have matriarchal societies. This means that females are dominant to males and command first choice of food and mating partners. Females typically stay with the same group throughout their lives, while males may change groups several times. They live in social groups of 3 to 10 animals and stay together playing, grooming, feeding, and sleeping.

Hyenas

Hyena. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Heather Cooper

Hyena. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Heather Cooper

Clans of hyenas are often led by females. One high-ranking female will take charge and lead the group as matriarch. High rank is important because it gives females priority access to food and helps improve their reproductive success. Females are more socially dominant than males and form bonds through a greeting ceremony that can involve genital to genital interactions.

 

Have you seen any of these matriarchal groups in action? Share your favorite female wildlife leaders in the comments!

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