We’ve all heard that lions are the king of beasts—but who are the queens?
Spotted hyenas are some of nature’s fiercest queens. Not only are they larger and often more aggressive than their male counterparts, they also lead clans of between six and 90 members and they care for their young longer than any other African predator.
They’re not alone: The animal kingdom is full of female-led societies. From one of the largest animals on land to one of the most powerful in the sea—and even to some of the world’s tiniest insects—numerous species survive and thrive thanks to strong female leaders that teach survival skills, resolve conflicts, even sacrifice their bodies for the good of the group.
African savanna elephants
Among African savanna elephants, the oldest and largest females are repositories of wisdom in the ultimate animal sisterhood. Many elephants spend their whole lives alongside their mothers and grandmothers. But these matriarchs aren’t autocrats—members of the family make suggestions and discuss plans of action.
Young females learn these leadership skills by “babysitting” calves, responding to infants’ cries of distress and helping newborns learn to stand, walk, and swim.
Leaf-cutter ant colonies consist of up to eight million individuals, all of whom report to a single queen. She rules over her workers in complex, underground chambers up to 50 feet wide and 16 feet deep.
A leaf-cutter ant queen can live up to 20 years, during which time she produces as many as 200 million offspring—and tasks the rest of the colony with their care and upbringing.
Humans’ closest relatives, bonobo societies are led by females who form strong friendships and are largely peaceful. They spend much of their time grooming, eating, and socializing.
However, when a male harasses a female, threatening their harmonious community, a group of females may band together and attack the offender.
In orca pods, grandma knows best; her presence boosts calf survival. A grandmother’s death has “an outsized impact on her family group,” says evolutionary ecologist Dan Franks. In fact, research has shown that for two years after an orca grandmother dies, young orcas’ own risk of death rises dramatically.
She also outlives her breeding years, making her one of the few species known to go through menopause. Though orca females stop reproducing around age 40, they can live up to 90 years, whereas their male counterparts live around 50 years.
To read more about queens of the animal kingdom, read our March cover story on the world of hyenas.
Discover the elephants, hyenas, orcas, and more marvelous matriarchs who run the natural world in Queens, a limited series premiering Monday March 4th at 8/7 central, and streaming on March 5th on Disney+ and Hulu.