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


The queen bee is fed royal jelly, a nutrient-rich substance produced by worker bees

The queen bee is the only female in the colony capable of reproducing, and she can lay up to 1,500 eggs a day. The queen gives off a pheromone that sends a message to the workers about her health and productivity. She is constantly nurtured 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 year workers will put their queen on a diet so she can fly long distances when the colony swarms – dividing in two when there are too many bees for one queen. One out of every three mouthfuls of our food and almost 90% of wild plants depend on pollination by animals such as bees. But pollinators are dying out. In the UK, a third of our wild bee populations are in decline. This is partly to do with habitat loss: in the UK, wildflower meadows have declined by 97% since the 1930s and just 7% of the UK’s forests are in good ecological shape.


An African lion with cubs in the Masai Mara, Kenya

Although they are known as “kings of the jungle”, lions live in groups made up mostly of females, who are in charge of hunting and providing for the other members of the pride. A pride of lions is usually made up of related females and their cubs, and lions are unique among cats in the way they live and work together. They give birth at the same time, rear the cubs communally within the pride, and cubs can suckle from any female with milk. About two-thirds of females stay within the pride they were born into. Lions are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list of endangered species. African lion numbers have declined by over 40% in the past three generations, having disappeared from more than 90% of their historical range. The main threats to lions are retaliatory or pre-emptive killing to protect human life and livestock, habitat loss and decreasing natural prey.


An orca with its baby in Puget Sound off Washington state.

Found in every ocean on the planet, these large dolphins (the killer whale is not a whale) are one of the most widely distributed mammals in the world. Behaviors vary greatly from pod to pod, but most stay in tight-knit matrilineal groups, with leadership passed from mother to daughter. Orcas are one of only a few mammals known to go through menopause, and females live up to 90 years old. The older females pass on valuable and complex knowledge about food resources and social habits, which can be the difference between life and death – a study found that young orcas with grandmothers were more likely to stay alive than those without. As well as being educated, calves are disciplined by their mothers, who show signs of anger through actions such as hitting their tails in the water and making noises with their teeth. As human activity intensifies, 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 distribution of prey linked to the climate crisis. It is also becoming harder for them to use echolocation to find prey as shipping intensifies and the oceans get noisier. Toxic contaminants can also harm killer whales’ immune and reproductive systems.

spotted hyenas

Spotted hyenas in Kenya's Ol Pejeta conservancy.

Spotted hyenas live in clans of up to 80 members led by alpha females. In these matriarchal societies, females have evolved to be larger than males and do most of the hunting, dictate the social structure and raise the cubs. Females almost always stay with the clan they are born into, inheriting their mother’s rank in the complex and competitive social ladder. Litters are usually two or three cubs born in private dens or the main communal den. Shortly after birth they begin tussling for dominance, particularly in same-sex litters. Most males disperse to join other clans where they start at the bottom of the group hierarchy, meaning the highest-ranking male is often subservient to the most junior female. This matriarchal structure lends itself to maintaining genetic diversity: dominant males can father a disproportionate number of cubs in one clan, while dominant females, who can only birth so many cubs at a time and often have multiple partners, avoid this risk.


An African elephant herd 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: on the death of the matriarch, her eldest daughter typically takes her place as leader. Proving wisdom comes with age, a study found that older matriarch elephants were better at assessing threats from predators than their younger counterparts, making them more effective at protecting the group. African savannah elephants are an endangered species, and African forest elephants are critically endangered and their numbers are declining. Africa has lost about 90% of its elephants in the past century, largely due to the ivory trade. Habitat loss, human-elephant conflict and climate breakdown also threaten this species. Elephants in Africa need to drink up to 300 liters of water a day. Hotter temperatures, less rain and periods of severe drought will threaten their survival and cause higher calf mortality.

The wall

Ring-tailed lemur females with infants in southern Madagascar

There are about 100 species of lemur, and within most social structures females take a dominant role. They are the only species of primate where the males and females are very similar in size; usually females are smaller. Lemur females show signs of dominance by the ways they mark their territory within the group. They have also been known to snatch food away from males and kick them out of sleeping spots. Wild lemurs can only be found on the island of Madagascar, where a third of all lemur species are critically endangered. They are under threat from habitat destruction, being hunted for meat, and from climate breakdown. A WWF study found that the populations of 57 species of lemurs will decrease by 60% if the global temperature rises by 2-4C by the end of this century.


A bonobo group walking along the edge of a lake in 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 males and females is balanced, there is usually a group at the very top led by an older female. Female bonobos are much smaller than the males, so instead of ruling by sheer physical strength, the female leader tends to earn her rank through age, experience and her ability to form strong bonds and alliances with other females in the group. Female bonobos have been known to gang up against males who have tried to harm or intimidate another female in their group, even when that female is not related to them, which prevents the males from dominating through force. Poaching and habitat loss remain key threats to this endangered species, which can only be found in the forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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