From killer whales to hyenas: meet the queens of the animal kingdom | Wildlife


The bees

The queen bee is the only female in the colony able to reproduce and she can lay up to 1,500 eggs per day. The queen emits a pheromone that sends a message to the workers about her health and productivity. She is constantly fed by a court of worker bees. Among other things, they groom her and control what she eats. Throughout her larval phase they will feed her royal jelly (a nutrient rich substance produced by worker bees) and at certain times of the year the workers will put their queen on a diet so she can fly on long distances when the colony swarms – splitting in two when there are too many bees for a single queen. One in three bites of our food and nearly 90% of wild plants depend on pollination by animals like bees. But pollinators are dying out. In the UK, a third of our wild bee populations are in decline. This is partly linked to habitat loss: in the UK wildflower meadows have declined by 97% since the 1930s and only 7% of UK forests are in good ecological condition.

the Lions

An African lion with cubs in the Masai Mara, Kenya

Although known as the “kings of the jungle”, lions live in packs of mostly females, who are responsible for hunting and supporting other members of the pride. A pride of lions is usually made up of related females and their young, and lions are unique among cats in the way they live and work together. They give birth at the same time, raise the cubs communally within the pride, and the cubs can suckle any female with milk. About two-thirds of women remain in the pride in which they were born. Lions are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. African lion numbers have declined by more than 40% over the past three generations, having disappeared from more than 90% of their historic range. The main threats to lions are retaliation or pre-emptive killing to protect human life and livestock, habitat loss, and diminishing natural prey.

Killer whales

An orca with her baby in Puget Sound off Washington State.

Present in all the oceans of the planet, these bottlenose dolphins (the killer whale is not a whale) are one of the most widespread mammals in the world. Behaviors vary greatly from group to group, but most remain in close-knit matrilineal groups, with leadership being passed down from mother to daughter. Killer whales are one of the few known mammals to go through menopause and females live up to 90 years. Older females pass on valuable and complex knowledge about food resources and social habits, which can mean the difference between life and death – a study found that young orcas with grandmothers were more likely to stay in life than those who had none. As well as being educated, calves are disciplined by their mothers, who show signs of anger through actions such as tail slapping in water and making noises with their teeth. As human activity increases, threats to the world’s oceans increase and orcas face many risks such as entanglement in fishing gear, lack of food due to overfishing and changes in prey distribution linked to the climate crisis. They also find it increasingly difficult to use echolocation to find prey as shipping intensifies and the oceans become noisier. Toxic contaminants can also harm the immune and reproductive systems of killer whales.

Spotted hyenas

Spotted hyenas in the Ol Pejeta game reserve in Kenya.

Spotted hyenas live in clans of up to 80 members led by alpha females. In these matriarchal societies, females evolved to be larger than males and do most of the hunting, dictate the social structure, and raise the young. Women almost always remain with the clan into which they were born, inheriting their mother’s rank in the complex and competitive social ladder. Litters are usually two or three cubs born in private dens or in the main communal den. Soon after birth, they begin to compete for dominance, especially in same-sex litters. Most males disperse to join other clans where they start at the bottom of the group hierarchy, meaning the highest ranked male is often subordinate to the youngest female. This matriarchal structure lends itself to maintaining genetic diversity: dominant males can sire a disproportionate number of offspring in a clan, while dominant females, who can only give birth to a certain number of offspring at a time and have often several partners, avoid this risk.


A herd of African elephants in the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya

Female elephants and their young offspring live in close family groups, led by a matriarch – often the oldest and largest female in the family. Similar to a monarchy, elephants demonstrate succession: upon the death of the matriarch, her eldest daughter usually takes her place as leader. Proving that wisdom comes with age, a study found that older matriarch elephants were better at assessing predator threats than their younger counterparts, making them more effective at protecting the herd. African savannah elephants are an endangered species, and African forest elephants are critically endangered and dwindling in number. Africa has lost around 90% of its elephants over the past century, largely due to the ivory trade. Habitat loss, human-elephant conflicts and climate degradation also threaten this species. African elephants need to drink up to 300 liters of water per day. Warmer temperatures, less rain and periods of severe drought will threaten their survival and lead to higher calf mortality.


Ring-tailed lemur females with infants in southern Madagascar

There are about 100 species of lemurs, and in most social structures, females play a dominant role. They are the only primate species where males and females are very similar in size; usually females are smaller. Female lemurs show signs of dominance by the way they mark their territory within the group. They have also been known to snatch food from males and expel them from sleeping places. Wild lemurs are only found on the island of Madagascar, where a third of all lemur species are critically endangered. They are threatened by habitat destruction, hunting for meat and climate degradation. A WWF study has found that populations of 57 species of lemurs will decline by 60% if the global temperature increases by 2-4°C by the end of this century.


A group of bonobos walking along the edge of a lake in the Lola Ya bonobo sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Bonobos are the only great ape society in which social groups are led by females. While the hierarchy between men and women is balanced, there is usually a group at the very top led by an older woman. Female bonobos are much smaller than males, so instead of ruling by physical strength, the ruler tends to gain rank through her age, experience, and ability to form strong bonds and alliances with others. other females in the group. Female bonobos are known to gang up on males who have tried to hurt or intimidate another female in their group, even when that female is unrelated to them, preventing males from forcibly dominating. Poaching and habitat loss remain the main threats to this endangered species, which is found only in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo.


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