How animals choose their leaders, from brute force to democracy

As Americans vote in the 2020 presidential election, we looked at how animals from elephants to bees keep their societies in line.

By Brian Handwerk
Published 22 Oct 2020, 22:59 BST
A troop of chimpanzees are seen in Uganda. Some alpha males rule using an iron fist, ...

A troop of chimpanzees are seen in Uganda. Some alpha males rule using an iron fist, while others take a gentler approach to leadership.

Photograph by Ronan Donovan, Nat Geo Image Collection

From bees to dolphins to elephants, many wild animals live in cooperative groups ruled by a single leader. And, as is the case in human societies, these rulers take different pathways to power.

Depending on their size and personalities, chimpanzees either use brute force or build coalitions to get ahead. The top dogs of some species, such as spotted hyenas, are determined by sex or by lineage, much as rulers ascend in a monarchy. Stickleback fish simply follow the best-looking of the bunch.

And though humans sometimes see leaders’ advanced age as a weakness—at least for U.S. presidents—some animal species embrace their elders, says Jennifer Smith, a behavioural ecologist at Mills College in California.

“Often mammals actively choose to follow an animal that has more knowledge and experience accumulated over its lifetime,” says Smith, who says that’s particularly true with female elders.

Matriarchs in charge

For African elephants, that would be the oldest female in a herd.

These grand dames, which can live 60 years, are most adept at recognising the roars of dangerous lions and protecting their kin from attack, according to a study in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. They also use their famed memories to map the landscape and guide their herd to essential resources, such as food and water. “It’s leadership based on prestige and achievement,” Smith says. (Learn how elephants show empathy for each other.)

Older females also lead orca, or killer whale, pods, guiding their family group for up to 50 years after they birthed their last calf. A recent study showed that by leading their relatives to the best places to hunt fish, post-menopausal females are essential to their relatives’ survival; when a grandmother dies, its grandchildren’s risk of death increases.

“That’s particularly the case when food is scarce,” Smith says. “It’s the grandmother’s ecological knowledge that’s so very important in these societies.”

Dominance rules

Alpha females also lead Africa’s spotted hyena clans, which may have as many as 130 members. Each female is sorted from birth into an inflexible social hierarchy, like high school cliques from which nobody ever graduates.

“The queen in spotted hyena society inherits her rank based on who her mother is, so there’s a social transfer of knowledge, and power,” says Smith. (Hyenas may have a bad rap, but they’re Africa’s most successful predator.)

Multiple families exist within a larger hyena group, with the royals at the top and each family ranked for certain levels of access to food and resources. Alpha females and their cubs, for example, get the best access to food and social support from their kin. That generally ensures those females are healthier and produce more offspring—a cycle that maintains social rank,and leaves males squarely in second status.

In hyena clans, "females are calling the shots in pretty much every aspect of life,” Smith says.

Brute force

Chimpanzee societies are topped by an alpha male whose main interest is sex; leaders enjoy access to fertile females and father the most offspring.

These head chimps keep the peace by stemming disputes in the group and controlling resources such as food. They also maintain a pecking order that determines who gets to mate with whom—a popular political favour to be handed out to supporters.

Alpha chimps aren’t determined by birth, so they’re always on guard against potential coups d’etat from marauding males. As a result, many chimp leaders are "self-interested thugs," working "really hard to keep that high status by terrorising everyone else,” says Michael Wilson, an ecologist of the University of Minnesota who studies group relations among the great apes.

Building coalitions

But that’s not always the case.

Intriguingly, some chimps—particularly those that are smaller and less aggressive—become leaders via a totally different strategy: Building coalitions.

In Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, Wilson studied an alpha chimp that researchers had named Freud. This male stayed in power by building bonds with his fellow chimps, grooming and spending more time interacting with them. Other males that take this approach have even been observed tickling infants—much like human politicians kiss babies on their campaign stops. (Read about Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee research in Gombe Stream.)

By practicing kindness—and some old-fashioned politicking—Freud was rewarded with loyalty and the perks of power, such as food, grooming, and mating opportunities.

Leading by consensus

Political scientists have investigated to what extent humans choose leaders based on attractiveness—a criterion also applied in non-human realms.

The three-spined stickleback, a small fish native to the Northern Hemisphere, looks for physical appeal—but it’s not based on shallow aesthetics. The species selects leaders that are plump, with smooth (and therefore disease-free) skin, because these factors point to robust health and survival skills. (Read how some fish can recognise faces.)

That study also found that once a fish within a school identifies that attractive leader and begins following it, the rest of the group goes along with the majority.

The bigger the school, the more likely the fish followed the correct leader, suggesting that sheer numbers can help. But as with humans, a consensus approach can have its drawbacks: Sometimes a few fish follow a less desirable fish, leading the entire group astray.

Democracy via dance

Honeybee queens take their throne in a decidedly violent fashion. Worker bees create about a dozen potential queens by feeding ordinary female workers a special diet. Then the workers step back and let the queen candidates battle it out, one-on-one, with each bout ending in victory or a deadly sting.

Worker bees surround a honeybee queen as she lays her eggs in a colony in the United Kingdom.

Photograph by Kim Taylor, Nature Picture Library

The last bee standing becomes the queen—though she’s not much of a leader. “Her function is to be an egg layer,” says Thomas Seeley, a biologist at Cornell University and author of Honeybee Democracy. “Other than being a skilled fighter, that’s all she does.”

Queen coronation notwithstanding, when honeybees face a life-or-death decision—where to move an endangered hive, or whether to split up a successful one—they act democratically to choose which would-be leader’s path to follow, Seeley says.

Several hundred scout bees search for new nest sites and return to the hive to report back on these prime locations. The more energetically a scout bee dances—communicating information about direction and distance to the site—the more it attracts uncommitted scouts to visit its site.

When a critical number of scouts have visited an excellent site, the bees at that site realize that they've reached a quorum and won the “election.” They then return to the hive to get the others to act on the results. (Go inside a wild honeybee hive with intimate portraits.)

Seeley says the bee behaviour presents an interesting juxtaposition to human elections, in which candidates are not necessarily incentivised to be honest. For the bees, on the other hand, being truthful about the suitability of their prospective home is crucial.

“Each bee’s success depends upon the colony doing well,” he says, so they “only report things correctly. Otherwise you’re only going to screw yourself”—a precept that might benefit other species, including our own.


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