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Inside the Fascinating Social Hierarchies of the Animal Kingdom

By Peggy Chen

The Lion King sold its viewers a picture-perfect story of the ‘Circle of Life’. Lemurs and wild hogs frolic aside prides of Lions under the baking heat of the African Savannah, only a short distance from a jungle-like oasis that provides an abundance of natural resources. However, the actual social structures of the animal kingdom tell a very different story.

Social hierarchies are highly prevalent in different animal species, coming in a multitude of different forms. While some prefer a life of solidarity, such as the Snow Leopard, defending up to several hundred square kilometers of territory at a time. Other animals, such as the gray wolf of North America, live in packs.

Animals that live in groups are granted the added safety and support of sheer numbers, at the cost of competition, which can be ruthless at times. Most groups of animals tend to experience variations of aggression and submission through dominant-subordinate relationships. In groups, this typically comes with an ‘alpha’, who dominates all, followed by a ‘beta’, who submits to the alpha, but still dominates those below it, onto a gamma, and eventually, an omega. Those at the top of their social hierarchies have relatively few influences from others on their feeding and mating behaviors; meaning more plentiful food, choice inmates, as well as living quarters. On the other hand, those in subordinate positions receive the scraps, unwanted by those dominating in higher positions.

The relatively simple structure can vary immensely in both complexity and fundamental structure for animals of different species. In certain situations, a singular animal dominates the rest, with no specific order of subordinate positions. Other times, animals live in smaller groups, akin to families. Regardless, all animals, no matter how independent in nature, engage in social interaction in the process of mating.

Social structures shouldn’t be confused with mating patterns, however, as mating seasons disrupt animals' regular social hierarchies, rather than institute a part them. Such is the case of the European quail, living in groups during the winter and migration season, but chooses to breed with individual mates in the summer.

Mating patterns generally fall into several categories: monogamous, polygynous, or polyandrous.

In monogamous mating, animals mate with a single partner for life. Although extremely common in human society, only three to five percent of animals practice monogamy. Most animals mate with more than one partner, such as the case of Bonobos, who engage in both heterosexual and homosexual interactions outside of common mating practices, strengthening interpersonal relationships between Bonobos.

For most animals, life resumes as normal once mating season has passed, with many returning to their previous social structures. In the case of the famous Pacific Salmon, mating is for life. As a semelparous animal, the salmon only reproduces once in their life, depleting the entirety of their energy swimming upstream and laying eggs. Once the salmon’s journey is complete, the body deteriorates from exhaustion until it is decomposed, or eaten.

The aforementioned examples are by no means an extensive listing- social structures that animals form are a means for safety, stability, and even connection, but vary largely, many serving as the perfect breeding ground for violence and fighting. Not only do animal social structures provide insight into the power dynamics amongst members of the same group, but can be applied to study of both the evolutionary and biological roots of those relationships in a myriad of ways. Today, scientists continue to examine the reasoning behind complex animal behaviors.


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