Some of the most interesting material that animal behaviorists study is the interaction between members of the same species. The study of social grouping is an important task of any behaviorist. They must understand the reasons why a creature might fight to ensure the safety of another, in clear disregard of the “survival of the fittest” adage. They must understand what a society’s rules are; how certain members of a group might forage, while others keep guard for predators. They must understand the body language that creatures may use to greet others, warn them from getting too close, or show enjoyment, sadness, and affection. Using this information, we can understand more about organisms found in the wild, understand how they must be treated in captivity, help creatures verging on extinction, and even see the behaviors of humans in a new light.
Social orders can be divided into two groups, solitary and group. Solitary creatures like tigers and bears tend to keep to themselves, staying with others only to mate and protect children. Group creatures may be together to protect each other, like antelope, or to help hunt, like wolves.
Solitary creatures are usually strong predators; secluded in the top tier of their food chain, and far stronger than anything that could possibly harm them. They usually gain nothing by staying in a group, and may in fact be harmed by doing such. Solitary creatures are also territorial, fiercely fending invaders from their area. These animals usually found together only to mate. For example, panthers are solitary animals, with the only groups consisting of mothers and their kittens, while adults only meet to mate. Other than these occasions, panthers stay in separate territories. They are fiercely territorial, and over the course of their life, they will stay away from territories claimed by other panthers. If solitary creatures were forced into too close of a proximity, they may disturb food balances within regions and eventually fight amongst themselves for limited resources and space.
There are several different types of groups that animals may gather in. The most common is an alpha leader group. In this type of group, one animal will hold authority over all of the other members of the group, from territory, to food, to the right to mate. This authority may be challenged at any point, leading to the possibility of exiles and outcasts within a group. These exiles have an extremely difficult time in the wild, and mortality rates amongst exiles of group creatures is extremely high. While breeding may only be held in the hands of the leaders, groups will often take care of the young as a community. An example of this type of group is a pack of wolves. They are lead by an alpha breeding pair, in this case, who lead, while those directly under them, or the beta, act as surrogate parents for the young. The most submissive in the group, the omega wolf, is the subject of the harshest treatment, but is also the one most observed to entice playfulness in the group. This type of structure is common to many animals in many harsh environments. Antelopes in a herd are capable of warning others in their group of danger. Wolves are able to hunt in a pack, bringing down creatures that are more than twice their size and weight. Hyenas can coordinate hunting strategies in packs rivaling the intelligence of some chimpanzees. Some creatures like dolphins and elephants are caring creatures that can empathize with each other and will lose emotional connection if kept in solitude. All of these creatures are strongest as a pack.
There is another special group several species of insects adopt. The hive is an extremely large social order, sometimes consisting of tens of thousands of individuals. These nests consist of a queen, who lays eggs, male drones, who mate with the queen, and sterile workers, who tend to the hive. Ants, termites, and wasps also tend to follow this social structure. This structure allows for relatively weak creatures to successfully flourish by letting large losses to predators be offset by a very large population that continues to grow.
Social order among all of life is highly complicated. Human social order can be judged very much like the ones that are common. We may find those who find solace in a quiet, solitary environment. We may find those who cannot stand the absence of human contact. No matter what species it is, there are always intricacies that will elude us. Many researchers spend lifetimes trying to understand a particular animal, only to have the next generation come up with something that will astound them. This only shows us how amazing and mysterious life truly is.