President’s Day: How Animals Lead

President’s Day weekend was set aside to honor the memory of our first president, George Washington,  celebrating his skillful leadership at the dawn of our history as a nation.

Leadership and hierarchies seem to come naturally to humans, helping to keep society in order, but what of other species?  Do they have leaders? How do they organize their social lives? Does a gorilla want a strong central government?  Does a bear?

Let’s take a look at few wild systems of government and social control:

Members of a wolf pack prowl the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park

Gray Wolves

Gray wolves live in packs of five to fifteen animals, though sometimes much larger depending on the abundance and size of prey. Packs usually are dominated by an alpha (top) male and female, which generally mate for life and are more likely than other wolves in the pack to raise young successfully, initiate hunts and eat the best food. Each pack usually has an omega wolf—the last one in the hierarchy—which has to kowtow to all others.


Their motto seems to be, “I don’t lead, and I don’t follow.” Adult bears tend to be solitary, except for females with cubs and during the brief mating season. Males will kill and eat cubs as they would any other living tidbit that suited their taste buds, which may help explain why mother bears often have hair-trigger tempers—they have to be willing to fight fiercely or risk losing their babies. Mothers lead their cubs to such things as food and water and to trees that the cubs can climb to avoid, for example, a hungry dad. Bears establish dominance hierarchies in areas where they feed in groups, as among Alaskan brown bears at seasonal salmon streams, and doubtless establish dominance in defending their territories.

African Elephants

A male, or bull, usually leaves the herd into which he was born during his teen years. He herds with other young males and, as he matures, joins them in shoving matches that help establish rank. Older, mature bulls may be solitary, hooking up with female herds only for mating. The real social life is among the females, which tend to remain in the herd in which they were born and to help raise one another’s young. The leader of such a herd is usually a female with a few decades of experience, capable of taking the frontline in defense of the herd and of leading it to food and water, especially in times of shortage.

Sperm Whales

Not much is known about these denizens of the deep, but their social structure seems much like that of African elephants. Males leave the groups into which they are born, join all-male herds, then return to female herds for mating. Like the elephants, the female herds seem to be made up of animals that grew up together and are led by an older female.

Mountain Gorilla

This species lives in groups of up to 20 individuals that may all be dominated by a single male, which at around 600 pounds is the largest of the apes. Maturing females usually leave the group they were born into and seek new associations where they can find a mate and avoid inbreeding. Males sometimes move off too, and a male may join up with other males or wander alone until he accumulates females and starts his own group. If a dominant male dies, his females will seek to join another group. When a male takes over a group, he may kill the offspring fathered by the previous male, making way for his own young. A dominant male may take the lead in going to feeding and resting areas and in defense, allowing the females to retreat from a threat while he holds the line with roars, chest beating and ground slapping.

African Lion

Once again, females form the social core, staying together in the groups or prides into which they were born. The females are usually related. When males are 2 to 4 years old, they are driven out of the pride and form coalitions, usually of related lions, that wander in search of a pride. When they find one, they may fight the one to three resident males that dominate it, chasing them off or killing them. The next order of business is the killing of all nursing cubs. Getting rid of them puts the females into breeding condition, allowing the newcomers to father their own offspring—until the next group of usurping lions comes along.


The American buffalo also is rather like the African elephant, with females herding Bison work out who is in charge among the Yellowstone National Park bison herd together with their young and bulls living alone or in male herds. Male calves stay with their mothers until about three years old. Bulls test each other with bellows and head-ramming fights. During breeding season, a bull will collect a harem from which he excludes other breeding bulls. Dominance in bison is age related: males and females born early in the breeding season tend to grow larger earlier, giving them an edge in establishing dominance as they mature.


More than 12,000 species of ant have been named, with perhaps another 10,000 yet to be found. With that many species, we’re likely to see a wide range of behaviors in ants. But the basic, hill-excavating, colonial ant most of us think of when we think of ants lives in a seemingly regimented but leaderless world. The queen does not really rule—she is a permanent brood hen, popping out eggs. The workers are all females, and nature—that often harsh taskmaster—has assigned different jobs to different workers. Some tend eggs, some feed the larvae, some take care of the queen, some search for food, and so on. Apparently there is no functioning leader—each ant follows its internal program, led primarily by innate impulses or instinct. In effect, the anthill is a world without leaders, and without freedom.

Females Rule in the Animal Kingdom

One might reasonably suspect that if most of the species mentioned here had a President’s Day of their own, the celebrated leaders would be all or almost all females. Males probably would be regarded as something akin to murderous Roman dictators like Nero or Caligula, while female leaders would be remembered for their skill at raising young and leading others to nourishment and safety. Madame President’s Day, as it were.

Learn about our conservation president, Theodore Roosevelt, a member of National Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Hall of Fame >>