Among several species in the animal kingdom, it’s the females who dominate

Rathi was the mother of all matriarchs. The 78-year-old captive Asian elephant, who passed away recently at Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, adopted and raised several calves at the camp where she lived. Whether it was a tough bull or a wayward calf, Rathi made sure they listened to her, in her own gentle way. She was a leader, teacher, protector, care-giver…all of which are the typical qualities of a matriarch.

Females are the boss in the elephant world. Out in the wild, the matriarch, usually the oldest elephant in the herd, leads the group, teaches the young ones forest life, ensures that everyone in the group is safe and well-fed... “The most sure-footed elephant is chosen to be the matriarch by the herd,” says a veterinarian from the Tamil Nadu Forest Department. “If a little one in the herd is hurt, the matriarch will come back for him and make sure he is out of trouble,” he says.

Females wield a lot of power in the animal kingdom. They sometimes dominate over males that are more powerful and ferocious. Lionesses for instance, strike fear in the hearts of lions when they are nurturing their babies. Says wildlife filmmaker and conservationist Mike Pandey, “Though lionesses are lighter and smaller when compared to lions, they become aggressive and powerful when they are protecting their young.” So much so that even lions keep away from them! “In East Africa, I’ve seen powerful black-maned lions back off from their lionesses,” he adds.

It’s the lionesses who do all the hard work when it comes to hunting, says Mike. “They strategise, chase and bring the kill down.” This is because they are smaller, more agile and can run longer distances than the huge and sluggish males, he adds. “The grizzly male usually bullies the female into letting him feed first.”

Females are more powerful than the males among spotted hyenas. “Females are at the top of the social hierarchy,” says biologist R. Arumugam. “A dominant female leads a pack. She can be identified as the one with the biggest skull and large teeth.” Apart from defending her clan and locating prey for them, she will have the privilege of mating with the strongest male of her choice. “The male spotted hyena, which is of a smaller build, gives in,” adds Arumugam.

“Females rule the roost amidst lion-tailed monkeys,” says wildlife biologist Mewa Singh. “They have a strong kinship system. Usually, mothers, daughters and grand-daughters can be seen together. There will be only one male in a troop of six to seven females.” The lone male lives a subdued life. “He cannot afford to be aggressive, since he has to face the combined aggression of several females,” adds Dr. Singh.

Politics in the animal kingdom is fascinating. A minister’s child lives a privileged life — so do the young ones of the leader of a pack of animals. “The leader of the pack will occupy the centre. This is the safest spot since she is protected from predator attacks. Her children will be close-by and hence will have the same privilege,” says Dr. Singh.

He however feels that the perspective with which we look at animal behaviour defines how we understand it. Their societies “range from despotic to egalitarian”. Dominance of females over males, or vice-versa, changes with the context. Females are always worried about feeding their young. “Their priority is access to resources. Whereas for males, the priority is to find a female to mate,” he adds. Therefore, the aggression or dominance of the sexes is “dynamic in expression”. “A female cannot afford to be aggressive during the mating season since she has to realise her reproductive fitness.”

However, hell hath no fury like a mother protecting her babies. Most females in the animal kingdom acquire a renewed aggression during this period. “A transformation takes place,” says Pandey. “They are not docile and low key anymore.”

(Janaki Lenin’s column ‘My Husband and Other Animals’ will resume next week)