The Leader of the Pack
The Weird World of Animal Hierarchies“Alpha male”, “top dog” and the “pecking order” are all phrases that might not seem out of place in a Wall Street boardroom; yet unsurprisingly, they all have their origins in the animal kingdom. While humans have used methods such as inherited monarchies or modern day elections, animals also have myriad ways to establish hierarchy. What’s more, just like in our society, holding the top spot brings with it many benefits. Whereas monarchs and presidents might be showered with riches, their animal counterparts gain breeding privileges and first place in the lunch queue.
For chickens, the phrase “the pecking order” is taken literally to a rather painful extreme. Pecking is more than just a way chickens gobble up the grain and other foodstuffs we feed them, it can also be a dangerous weapon and a method of exerting dominance. The dominant birds can peck the more submissive ones at will and the latter just have to put up with. However, looks can be deceiving; sometimes the more dominant birds might not be the largest in the flock, nine times out of ten it’s all down to raw, natural aggression. The parallels with the worlds of business and politics are plain to see.
The life of a baboon can be one of constant violence and turmoil. Squabbles over food and mating rights can often descend into brutal battles that can leave one party severely or even fatally wounded. Yet for the primates, known for their prominent red bottoms, it’s not necessarily all tooth and nail. Upon reaching maturity, male baboons are required to strike out on their own and attempt to incorporate themselves into another troop. The young male is then presented with a choice: The first option is to attempt to charm their way to the top by forming alliances. This could include sharing food or joining in mutual grooming sessions. The second, riskier route is to assert their dominance by challenging other males to combat and thus clawing their way up the ladder in vicious, often deadly brawls.
In the case of African wild dogs, the phrase “it takes a village” really rings true. The packs are “led” by a dominant pair of an alpha-male and an alpha-female. More submissive members of the pack chip in by babysitting the alphas’ pups while they’re out foraging and even forgoing mating themselves for the good of the pack as a whole. While such behaviours in an established pack may seem civilised, the initial forming of the group is markedly less so. The hierarchy is often established through open displays of aggression such as short, bloody fights or factions within the pack ganging up on larger, stronger members.
Whereas the wild dogs are ruled by a dominant couple, if you want to see a truly matriarchal hierarchy, look no further than the elephant. The large groups of these majestic beasts that we see roaming the savannah on popular nature documentaries are most likely all female. This is due to the fact that, just like baboons, males must fend for themselves when they reach adulthood. Males spend most of their adult lives either as lone bulls or in small bands of eligible bachelors. Larger herds of everyone’s favourite pachyderms are most often led by the oldest, wisest female, who typically has the most experience and nous to keep the herd out of trouble. When the matriarch passes away, we do not see the internecine squabbles present in many species. Instead, the role is normally filled by her eldest daughter, much like traditional lines of succession in human monarchical systems. Biologists studying the animals were taken aback by the findings of a recent study examining what happens when a matriarch succumbs to an early death, at the hands of poachers for example. Not only does the matriarch’s eldest daughter step up to fill the vacant leadership role, she also takes on her mother’s friendships and ways of interacting with her fellow herd members. Even if the daughter previously had little or no contact with those her mother was closest to, she will now interact with them as if they were lifelong companions.
Business tycoons and self-help gurus would have you think that we can all take a page out of these animals’ books and apply their most cutthroat tactics and tendencies in the boardroom setting to exert dominance. However, in this day and age, perhaps the softer, more empathetic skills our animal brethren often display, such as a focus on teamwork and forming lasting bonds, could be more beneficial. Nevertheless, when the chips are down it is doubtful that the sharks of this world will hesitate to bare their teeth when they smell blood in the water.