Leadership in the animal kingdom is often seen as the biggest or the strongest rising over the top of a group and asserting their dominance. But in some species, leadership can depend on different circumstances.
“Leadership really has to do with influencing collective decisions,” says Jennifer Smith, a biologist specialized in animal behavior at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. “Who the leader is varies based on what problem they’re trying to solve. Often, it’s very fluid.”
These leaders, as temporary as they may be at times, can be crucial to the survival of the overall group or others within it. In several species, elders take up leadership roles in the search for sustenance. Females do too, and often play key roles as leaders, Smith adds.
Survival in the wild can revolve around what may be considered mundane affairs, Smith continues. “Basically, it’s staying alive, staying safe, but also getting enough food to eat.”
Research has shown that a “grandmother effect” holds sway over the survival of young orcas. Outside of humans, orcas are among a handful of species – all of which are whales – that go through menopause. Elderly females take over when pods hunt for salmon and, most importantly, when food is scarce and difficult to find. Having accumulated “ecological knowledge,” these elder whales can support their younger family members.
Researchers tracked the lives of 378 orca grandchildren in the Pacific Ocean to figure out just how important these granny figures are. They found that calves whose grandmothers died within the last two years had a mortality rate 4.5 times higher than those with a living grandmother.
“As salmon populations continue to decline, grandmothers are likely to increase further in importance for these killer whale populations,” write the authors in the study.
2. African elephants
In the lives of African savannah elephants, the age and experience of the oldest and largest female – the matriarch – comes to the fore. Whether responding to threats from predators or instigating and leading group movements to find food or watering holes, these old timers play an important role in the wellbeing of the herd.
But age and experience are also important in all-male groups, research suggests. A study that followed such groups in Botswana, found that old bulls and other mature males also led herds on migration routes, with youngsters following.
3. Plains Zebra
Plains zebra live in social groups known as harems. These usually consist of a male and several females, alongside their young. They also gather in more loosely connected herds.
Researchers followed zebra in Kenya to understand more about their group dynamics. What they found is that overall, lactating females are more likely to initiative and influence their harems movement towards water. These females, take on a temporary leadership role and benefit from it.
“By initiating harem movements, lactating females bring their harems to water ahead of other harems,” the researchers write in the study. Lactating females at the head of harems can then get “priority access” to water.
“Females with young foals or offspring, are choosing when to go to waterholes and how long to stay for,” says Smith. “That definitely influences the survival of their offspring.”
At the top of chimpanzee groups stands the alpha. How this male achieves this status can depend on his personality, as the Jane Goodall Institute explains. Some may arrive there due to sheer brutality and force. In short, many dominant chimps behave like “self-interested thugs.”
Others can dole out favors – such as grooming – to build alliances with other group members. Once in a position of dominance, the alpha gets prime choice on mating and can halt fighting amongst those further down the social ladder.
How this relates to survival is uncertain, but those in the alpha’s coalition or with higher social rank can benefit. In chimp groups, however, being at the top is precarious, as the alpha must always keep a wary eye on those beneath him.