Of the some 5,000 known mammal species on the planet, only a small selection exhibit signs of leadership. Some of the most iconic of those like lions, elephants and bonobos have females at the helm that take charge during conflict, travel or foraging. We're zooming in on five matriarchal mammal societies from the animal kingdom where females do the heavy lifting:

African lions


Simba may have been cast in the lead role, but in real life it's Nala who rules the pride. Lions are the only wild cats that live in groups with a social structure dominated by females. Lionesses do the majority of the hunting, they protect their turf and youngsters from intruders, and they know the best spots to grab a drink or a bite to eat. While males come and go – never sticking around for long enough to form meaningful bonds – lionesses carve out clearly defined territories and then spend their lives ruling them.

Spotted Hyenas


In spotted hyena clans females call the shots. When these cackling predators head out on the hunt, it's usually hungry, lactating females that lead the group, and if a scuffle breaks out with a rival clan, female leadership is key to success. Although they are strong hunters, males are the weaker sex in hyena societies; they are smaller, rank lower in the social hierarchy, and are often overpowered by dominant females. In many mammalian societies, males often duke it out for mating right over subservient females, but in hyena clans, females dictate under which conditions and with whom they'll mate. Who's laughing now?

African elephants


Leadership does not have to be defined by aggression. In African elephant societies, knowledgeable matriarchs lead the herd using their wisdom, and may guide the group to water during a drought or take charge when a newborn falls into a muddy drinking hole and requires rescuing. Elephant females are born into leadership and inherit their roles from their mothers, but they must gain a considerable amount of life experience before being ready to take over the herd. Matriarchs are usually the older and biggest females in the group. Males, meanwhile, live mostly separate lives and don't play a long-term role in leading the family. 



For many lemur species, females rule the roost. Alpha females maintain the social order, control food and dominate the mating game. In some instances, they play a peacekeeping role, providing critical leadership when it comes to disputes with other colonies. Female dominance is rare amongst primates and some theories suggest it has something to do with the resources mother lemurs require to birth and raise babies. As the theory goes, fighting can be costly, so the males prefer to let the females run the show. Sound familiar?



While chimp social dynamics are often marked by screechy battles and tension, bonobos – their closely related cousins – are a lot more chilled. This may be due, at least in part, to the fact that bonobo troops are governed by females. Although smaller than males, female bonobos often intervene to settle conflict, and usually play a vital role guiding the group to food. Intimacy seems to be used as a tool for these primates, helping to reduce tensions and keep the troop happy.