Captivating and matriarchical: the meerkat.

Dominants, alphas, and queens: Happy Mother’s Day!

Mothers who rule in the animal kingdom.

by Jacquelyn Gill     

On the second Sunday in May in the United States, mothers reign supreme, receiving tributes of breakfast in bed, hand-made cards, flowers, and obligatory long-distance phone calls. Meanwhile, for the rest of the animal kingdom, it’s just another day: eat, hunt, mate, birth, nest, migrate, defend, and rest.

Some go it alone, but others—like spotted hyenas and bison—live in groups with complex social structures, and moms are at the top, year-round. In a matriarchy, females hold central roles of leadership and power. This might sound like a nice change of pace for some of us, but most anthropologists now agree that there have likely been no true matriarchal human societies (in spite of popular books like The Chalice and the Blade). Instead, matriarchies are more likely to be found in the rest of the animal kingdom, from meerkats to mammoths. Here are a few examples:

The Queen, surrounded by her supportive workers.

The Queen, surrounded by her supportive workers.

Honey bees: Bee colonies are giant matriarchal societies ruled by a single queen—quite literally the “queen mum.” Her offspring (as many as 25,000 at a time) make up the entire clan of female workers and male drones. The queen spends her life tended to by her worker daughters. These workers have underdeveloped reproductive systems, so the queen is the only female in the hive who gets to mate. The females do the work of the hive and tend to the queen while the male drones laze about until it’s time to mate with the queen. This setup might sound appealing at first, but it comes with a couple of important caveats. The Queen only mates once in her lifetime with a select handful of drones who were bred for that sole purpose (assuming they weren’t pushed out or killed by their worker sisters during tough times, when freeloading is less tolerated). During a series of nuptial flights, the queen gets all the sperm she’ll ever need for an entire lifetime—as many as five million individuals. She uses this sperm for to around 2500 eggs a day, which are tended to by her sterile daughters while she dines on royal jelly. The males get no reward for their service, but instead perish shortly after depositing their sperm, the unfortunate victims of an acute case of exploded abdomen.

Positives: Waited on hand-and-foot, low risk, low stress.  Negatives: Once-in-a-lifetime mating, copious egg-laying.

Captivating and matriarchical: the meerkat.

Captivating and matriarchical: the meerkat.

Meerkats: Meerkat societies are highly structured, with a complex ranking system based on dominance. If you want to get ahead in the meerkat world, perfect the art of chin swiping and hip checking, practiced on those lower down the totem pole while someone more powerful than you is looking the other way. Being on top has its rewards; alpha female meerkats are the only ones who get to mate in meerkat town. A matriarch chooses her partner, who becomes the dominant (and only mating) male. Males initiate copulation by ritually grooming the female until she submits. If the matriarch tires of her partner, he’s quickly deposed by beta males who are more than eager to earn a chance at mating. Alpha females make all the decisions in the group: where to sleep, where to burrow, when to go outside, when to forage. Like bees, meerkat females are typically mother to all the pups in the group (females typically kill pups born of unsanctioned unions). In addition to being free to engage in mating, being a matriarchal meerkat comes with free baby-sitting and nursemaid service from the subordinate females (who also will lactate to feed her pups). The downside is that all the other females want your job; as they get older, the young females start hip-checking, stealing food, and even picking fights. Often, the alpha kicks young competitors out of the group before they get old enough to pose a threat.

Positives: Your clan, your rules; mate selection; ritual grooming; cooperative breeding. Negatives: High risk.

Cooperative and matriarchical.

Cooperative and matriarchical.

Killer whales (orcas): Killer whales have some of the most complex social structures known in nature and are found in large resident groups (mostly fish eaters), smaller transient groups (seal hunters), or offshore groups (of which relatively little is known). Killer whale societies are entirely structured around the maternal line, in a hierarchy of groups. The smallest of these is the matriline, which contains the oldest female and her direct descendents—as many as four generations in one (great grand-whale, grand-whales, mama whales, and baby whales). Several matrilines together make a pod, and groups of pods with the same dialect and shared maternal lineage form a clan. For killer whales in resident groups, the young live with their mothers for the their entire lives, while in the smaller, transient groups, females tend to depart once they become mothers of their own. Meanwhile, male killer whales are mama’s boys, maintaining a strong relationship with their mothers for life. Even siblings remain close after their mother dies. Unlike bees or meerkats, all females can mate as they wish, although almost always only with males from other pods. These close-knit groups are important for successful hunting, as well as for rearing young that require a lot of parental investment (like humans do!). A killer whale’s female relatives assist her during labor, and even help guide her 400 lb calf to the surface to take its first breath. This cooperative behavior is a key part of teaching calves important life skills like the complex group hunting strategies similar to those that wolf packs use.

Positives: Strong family structure, cooperative breeding, matrilineal. Negatives: The kids never leave home.

Don't let the tusks fool you: It's a she, and she's the boss.

Don’t let the tusks fool you: It’s a she, and she’s the boss.

Elephants: Female elephants live together in small family groups, typically consisting of a matriarch and her young or closest relatives. The oldest female elephant in each family group gets the job, and the position is passed down to her oldest daughter when she dies. Matriarchs have a lot of social power but are also the source of important lore in the herd, like where the water is, how to avoid predators, and even how to use various tools like makeshift fly-swatters. Meanwhile, males live bachelor lifestyles, fending for themselves alone or in small groups after getting kicked out at puberty. Male and female elephants occasionally come together to socialize or mate, but otherwise live separately. Unlike bees, meerkats, and killer whales, female elephants have a lot less control in the mating process. Fertile females are followed around by aggressive bulls who rumble, produce a musky scent that they disperse by flapping their ears, and fight off other interested parties. For young female elephants, this mating behavior can be a bit intimidating, and so her female relatives will often stay by her side to provide moral support. After a two-year pregnancy, a female will give birth to a calf, which quickly becomes the center of herd life, as female relatives caress and welcome the newborn. The perks of elephant motherhood include free babysitting and protection from predators; females will circle the young when they sense danger. In some Asian elephant populations, multiple families have even been observed coming together to form specialized groups for nursing or juvenile care, like a cooperative preschool.

Positives: Strong family ties, cooperative parenting. Negatives: Lack of mate control, two-year pregnancy (!).

Many different kinds of matriarchy exist in the animal kingdom, as do many kinds of moms. Whether you’re a queen or a worker, an alpha or a beta, a subdominant or a matriarch, Happy Mother’s Day to moms everywhere.

References 

The Living Elephants: Evolutionary Ecology, Behavior, and Conservation, Raman Sukumar. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. Kalahari Meerkat Project, Cambridge University

Killer Whales: The Natural History and Genealogy of Orcinus Orca in British Columbia and Washington, Kenneth C. Ford, Graeme M. Ellis, & Kenneth C. Balcomb. University of British Comumbia Press, Vancouver.

WebBeePop, Carl Hayden Bee Research Center, USDA Agricultural Research Service

[Photo credits: all photos are from Wikipedia with Creative Commons with Attribution liceneses except for #3, which is Public Domain: (1) A queen bee surrounded by her worker daughters. Photo by Waugsberg. (2)  A meerkat in the Kalahari. Photo by Muriel Gottrop. (3) A mother-calf killer whale pair. Photo by Robert Pitman. (4) A matriarchal elephant and her family. Photo by Amoghavarsha.] Continue reading