The power in non-human animals was at play in a simple way. The bigger and stronger animals beat out the smaller and weaker animals. The vanquished stole away and the victor received the prize. Or so we thought. There are plenty of examples of this type of brutal combat in nature. But we now know that the search for power in the animal kingdom is far more nuanced, interesting and — dare I say — nicer than we previously thought.
The pursuit of power—what I define here as the ability to direct, control or influence the behavior of others and/or the ability to control access to resources—affects nearly every aspect of animals’ social lives. The winners of the power struggle get more food, more partners, better and safer living conditions, or a combination of these.
The strategic aspects of animal power are mind-boggling. We biologists used to think that animals were simple robots that responded to immutable algorithms determined only by their genes. During the breeding season, male sticklebacks become intensely territorial and turn bright red on their undersides, attracting females. Dutch biologist Nico Tinbergen, winner of the Nobel Prize for founding the field of animal behavior, discovered that if you showed anything red to a serpentine thorn, it would attack: “Even a red mailbox 100 meters from our windows,” Tinbergen wrote, “can make males attack.” The glass wall of the aquarium is in this direction.”
But over time, prompted by a paper by evolutionary biologists John Maynard Smith and George Price who used game theory to analyze non-human behaviour, ethologists came to realize that animal behavior is strongly influenced by what its opponent does. Animals rule over their alleged opponents, spy on others, adapt their behavior upon sight, form alliances to subdue rivals, and much more. Research into power dynamics shows the complexity of their strategies.
Over the course of three weeks in March 1990, two ethicists from the University of Hamburg, Dirk Frank and Alexander Ribowski, along the banks of several streams and brooks in Veracruz, Mexico, collected data on aggression in a group of nearly a hundred fish known as swords campaign†Based on the attacks and retreats they observed, Frank and Ribovsky found that these fish form dominant hierarchies, but the scientists weren’t sure how to do this.
A few years later, when Ryan Early came to work in my lab as a PhD student, he wanted to dig deeper into the nature of the swordsmen’s power. After hundreds of hours of observing the males in the lab, he was certain that the sabers were carrying out reconnaissance or so-called eavesdropping in the animal behavior literature. The eavesdroppers use the information they gather from watching other battles and change their assessment of the combat capabilities of those they watched.
In an ingenious experiment with one-way mirrors, Early found that duelists avoid contact with the winner of the match they were watching. When it comes to interacting with males who have seen them lose, fish follow an interesting rule: if the loser offers relatively little resistance, chase him away; But if he had a good fight before he finally gave up, walk away from him. The collection of intelligence by swordsmen and the way they use that information so well shows that natural selection sculpts the subtle and complex strategies used during power struggles, even in an animal whose mind can comfortably sit on the head of a pin.
Other animals change their behavior strategically depending on who is observing them, in an attempt to shift the balance of forces in their direction. An intriguing example of this strategy comes from crows Thomas Bogniar, Jorgen Siebel and their colleagues who studied at Konrad Lorenz Field Station near the village of Gronau in the Austrian Alps.
From a raven’s point of view, the audience for Manpower Clash isn’t worth it, but the audience made up of other ravens is definitely worth it. Victims of aggression often cried out in defense, urging crows from the crowd to come to their rescue. But Bugyner and Szipl felt there was also an extra layer of complexity at work. They filmed victims making a defensive call, and upon reviewing the footage noted not only the duration and number of calls, but also the identities of other crows within 25 meters of the victim. It turns out that crows on the wrong side of the battle adjust their defensive calls depending on who’s watching and listening. Victims cried most often when there were potential allies in the audience – relatives or long-term partners (friends). Most importantly, victims were less likely to scream when their opponent’s potential allies were in the audience: there is no point in drawing attention to an unfortunate situation if it could make matters worse.
Among the dwarf mongoose in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, a power struggle rages between the groups. Michael Kant and his colleagues wanted to find out why, and they found that it all starts because genetic relatedness in ferret populations builds up across generations. This arrangement can lead to inbreeding, but female dwarf ferrets have found a simple but clever way around this problem: find mates in neighboring groups. When a female leaves in search of a mate, the males of her group follow her, often resulting in an all-out battle between the males of the two groups. These are not nice things. There are often many casualties, including fatalities, among males. But a female looking for a mate often finds it while the males in her group are occupied in a different way.
Spy sword bearers, cunning crows, and intriguing mongoose are just three examples of the ways in which animals exercise their power game. Power struggles take place on land, underground, in the air, in water, and on every continent. They have been studied in detail in hundreds of species, including hyenas, caribou, chimpanzees, bonobos, dolphins, deer, horses, mice, crows, Skylarks, white-headed bee-eaters, copper-headed snakes, wasps, ants, and cuttlefish. . As we learn, we discover the myriad ways in which animals continue their relentless pursuit of power.