Meet the matriarchs – species where females rule the roost

There are many examples of females ruling the roost in the animal kingdom.

Matriarchs ensure the survival of their clans in a range of ways: a queen honeybee’s size and reproductive powers see her reign over workers and drones; meanwhile wisdom and diplomacy is power for some older female mammals such as killer whales and bonobos.

Here are five species in which fearless females are boss.

1. Killer whales

In tough times, older female killer whales (or orcas) use their years of wisdom to lead their families to find food.

Killer whale (or orca) matriarchs are the bosses of their pods and essential to their survival. In tough times, older females use their accumulated knowledge to lead their families to find food; and they look after their children and grandchildren throughout their life. In fact, killer whale sons are so reliant on their mums that her death means a huge increase in the likelihood of their own the following year.

Female killer whales are part of an elite cohort of animals that live far beyond the menopause (short-finned pilots whales and humans are the only other species known to decades after reproductive age).  They can have babies between the ages of 12 and 40 but often live into their 90s.  The oldest recorded killer whale, known as “Granny” lived to over 100, and was seen leading her pod up to her death.

2. Elephants

Copyright: Charlesjsharp

It is said elephants never forget and this certainly seems to be true for matriarchs in a herd, who, like killer whales, use their experience and knowledge to find food and water and avoid predators.

Elephant herds are formed of close-knit families led by the oldest female in the group. Males tend get kicked out when they’re old enough, to live a solitary life.

When a new baby arrives, all the females in a herd take care of them. Studies have shown that under matriarchs, elephant calves have a much higher survival rate when food and water is scarce.

3. Honey bees

Copyright: Jonathan Wilkins

Queen bees rule over 10,000-50,000 worker bees in her hive, most, if not all, of which are her daughters.

In this society worker bees are all female, and they choose and raise their queen.

It is an especially brutal life for male bees, called drones. They exist only to try to mate with the queen. If they succeed, their reproductive organs break off as she flies to the next drone and they die quickly after. And if they don’t succeed, they got thrown out of the colony by the end of the summer and die anyway.

4. Lemurs

Copyright: Bernard Dupont

Lemurs, found only in Madagascar, live in groups (delightfully called “conspiracies”) which are usually ruled over by a “queen”. In this society even female infants outrank males.

Some aggressive alpha female lemurs have been recorded pushing, slapping and pulling out the fur of disobedient males, though they are much more harmonious with the opposite sex during mating season.

5. Bonobos

Copyright: Hans Hillewaert

The hippies of the apes, bonobos, live a peaceful life filled with grooming and free loving.

High-ranking females spend much time grooming, eating and socializing together; they also make all the big decisions such as when and to where their troop will move.

Older females have even been reported coming to younger females’ defence: if a miscreant male is threatening them or making unwanted advances, they will bite them and send them scarpering.