Mums the Word: Matriarchs in African Animal Society

History is dotted throughout by the influence of powerful women. Women who left an indelible mark on the world in their respective field – be it science, religion, humanitarianism or sport – and bettered the lives of those around them. But it’s not just the human species who have bared witness to the strength of women; the animal world is not without it’s share of strong females either. In this post we’ll be looking at how two of Africa’s most distinctive animals – the African elephant and the spotted hyena – center their groups around the dominant female, the matriarch.

The African Elephant

The elephant herd is lead by the oldest, largest female who was closest in relation to the previous matriarch. These herds number anything from six to twenty elephants, depending on the availability of food and water, and consist of the matriarch’s female offspring and their young. The males of the group grow more and more independent and usually go off to join a band of bulls shortly after reaching puberty.

The matriarch influences the herd more than any other individual elephant, and the others tend to gravitate towards her. This is evident even in travel whereby the matriarch leads the herd from the front and the others follow behind her in single file.  As the primary caregiver, she is instrumental in teaching her daughters how to care for their young.  It is also she who the herd entrusts to make the tough decisions, and to protect them in times of danger. Research has showed that matriarchs organize their herds into defensive bunches when a threat – such as the roar of a lion – is detected, and that those with the oldest matriarch are usually quicker to do so.

Elephants bunching at a water hole.

Elephant society is incredibly advanced in that no behavior of young elephants is instinctive – everything is taught to them by the matriarch, mother and aunts. What is taught depends very much on the characteristics of the herd and is also strongly influenced by their natural environment, such as the availability, and type, of food available. In instances where food becomes too scarce, the matriarch’s daughters may break away to form their own herd on her instruction. When the herd feels that the matriarch is no longer able to lead, they ‘elect’ someone to replace her.

Spotted Hyena

With clans numbering as many as 50 hyenas, the clan leader has a hard time keeping everybody in check and, like the elephants above, the clan leader is a female matriarch. In fact so dominant are females in hyena society that the males rank not even immediately below the matriarch, but below every single other female. Furthermore, the hyenas are organised into even smaller social groups that are also female headed and this female rules every aspect of the group members lives.

A hyenas place in the pack becomes incredibly relevant when it comes to feeding. The lower members of the pack eat least and last, and thus become weak and less likely to survive. It is in this way that hyenas ensure strength breeds strength. Males are distinctly smaller and more timid than the females, so they have to make do with what they’re given. Poor guys…

Clearly, it’s not always the males who are rulers of the plains!

Hyenas eating as a pack, with the male forced to wait.

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