From Pecking Orders To Making Friends: How Animals Elect Their Leaders

When elections fail us, could the pecking order put politics back on track? PCHT/Shutterstock.com

Phrases such as “pecking order,” “top dog” and “leader of the pack” are often used to describe the social order in human society, but they have real significance in the animal kingdom too. From bees to elephants, animals exist within societies and as such each group needs order. In human society, we vote in elections to choose our leaders and protest when we disagree with those in charge. Despite this, time and again countries find themselves at odds with their government, so could how animals choose their leaders inspire better practices for selecting our own? Let’s find out.

In nature, social hierarchies are built on a basis of dominant and submissive members of the group. Those on top will usually glean some benefit in the form of exclusive mating rights or first dibs on food. It’s a coveted spot, and as such they must be the best fit for life at the top if they’re not to get knocked off by a competitor.

Pecking Order

In chickens, a process called the pecking order does exactly what it says on the tin as a means of establishing dominance. Dominant members can peck at will, free from retribution, while submissive members must put up with the pecking or protest at their peril. The process isn’t always as simple as the biggest bird comes out on top, as other factors such as natural aggression can alter who’s the biggest pain in the foot. While a government built on ankle kicking would make for an entertaining election, the pecking order reveals a sliding scale of leadership rather than a solo leader and their flock. Perhaps something to consider if you want to topple capitalism?

This many exposed butts can surely only spell disaster for politics. cpaulfell/Shutterstock.com

Claw Or Charm Your Way To The Top

There are six species of baboons, and all but one live in groups made up of males and females who are each assigned a rank. As happens across the animal kingdom, females are born into their rank, but males must move groups when they mature. In this new troop, they start at the bottom, but they can either fight their way to the top or climb ranks on the charm offensive by forming friendships with existing members. All seems quite merit-based and reasonable for the males so far, but what happens when a leader is challenged?

“Most of the time dominance ranks are maintained through very subtle social interactions; it is not always about fighting,” ecologist and conservationist Dr Cassandra Raby told IFLScience. “If a higher-ranking baboon wants to eat the food that a lower-ranking baboon is eating, then they better move out of the way. If not, the higher-ranking baboon will throw a tantrum, and often their family and friends will gather around to keep the lower-ranking baboon in its place.”

When fights do occur, these can get dangerous and the new contender will fight until the current leader is toppled or they die from their injuries. Considering the average age of human government leadership contenders, and that most politicians have not trained for physical combat, that could make for interesting viewing on election nights.

It's all for two, and two for all, when it comes to African wild dog packs. Nagel Photography/Shutterstock.com

It Takes A Village

For African wild dog packs, the top spots are held by male and female alpha pairs. Evidently it really does take a village for these dogs, as the subdominant members of the mixed-sex pack will support the alpha pair in raising their pups, bringing them food, and even babysitting while pack members are away. This support system has earned the subdominant dogs the title of “helper” as they altruistically forgo reproducing themselves in aid of the alpha pair’s offspring. This all sounds remarkably cooperative, but the way these packs form is somewhat less harmonious.

“When a pack is formed, they generally establish dominance through aggression – this could be dominant behaviour or sometimes fighting,” Dr Daniella Rabaiotti, author and scientist with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), told IFLScience. “Sometimes, if a wild dog's sibling is the alpha they inherit that status when they die – mostly because most of the other pack members will be the alpha pairs offspring, and they don't (usually) mate with their parents – this prevents inbreeding, where related individuals have offspring causing genetic problems.”

Mutineers are violently put back in their place, and if a subdominant female gets pregnant they will either raise the pups alongside the alpha pair’s or she will be abandoned to raise the pups alone, which rarely has a positive outcome. 

Queen bees crack out the trumpet to make their position known. StockMediaSeller/Shutterstock.com

Toot Your Own Horn

Eusocial bees take a much more musical approach to appointing leaders, as the queen bee toots to make her presence known. This racket is met by juvenile queen bees who quack back from inside the wax cells in which they’re trapped. When the reigning queen abdicates by flying off with a swarm, the lack of tooting signals remaining worker bees to free one of the captive queens-in-waiting. Atop her throne, the new queen will pick up where the old one left off, tooting to assert her royal leadership until it’s her time to leave and establish a hive elsewhere. Given that many countries have an appreciation for the pomp and circumstance of tooting at ceremonies, this system might hold some water, though the question of how long is reasonable to ask an aging leader to toot for may have some hoping for early retirement.

Hierarchies serve a purpose in the animal kingdom in establishing an order to reduce conflict and competition within social groups. These wild societies have their merits in their unique means of choosing a leader, but the logistics of employing some of these methods leads us to believe that, for now at least, voting with a ballot paper might be preferable to pecking at each other’s ankles.

If you think you know an animal electoral system we could stand to learn from let us know at social@iflscience.com or get in touch on Facebook or Twitter. Who knows what species holds the key to a fair and harmonious society?

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