Matriarchal Societies In The Animal Kingdom
A spyhopping Whale & J2 aka Granny
  • Post published:January 8, 2021

Matriarchal Societies In The Animal Kingdom

Killer Whales display this form of social organization and we have had the opportunity to observe this on our whale watching tours. Many of our crew and passengers find matriarchies fascinating, likely due to the fact that males are often expected to be the dominant sex in the animal world.

First thing’s first though – let’s define a matriarchy. Simply put,  a matriarchy is a form of social organization in which the mother or oldest female heads the family. The important thing to note is that matriarchal societies are not all the same. To help explain, we’ve compared a few different manifestations of matriarchies in the animal world.

Honey Bee
Photo credit: Jon Sullivan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Honey Bees

Our first example of a matriarchal society is seen in a Honey Bee colony. A bee hive is ruled by a queen, who is usually the mother of most, if not all, the bees in the hive. In this example of a matriarchal society, the queen does not leave the hive and is the only bee to mate within the colony.

In contrast, Elephants form deep family bonds and live in tight family groups of related females, called a herd. The herd is led by the oldest and often largest female in the group. Unlike Honey Bees, all of the sexually mature females in a herd aim to breed. Once a calf is born, it is raised and protected by all of the females in the herd (this is similar to Killer Whales, but we’ll talk more about that later!)


Male Bonobo Ape
Natataek at English Wikivoyage, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Bonobo Apes

Yet another fascinating example of a matriarchal society, which is again completely unique in their social organization, is the Bonobo Ape. Bonobos live in a society dominated by females, who use their alliances with other females to exert power over male Bonobos. This is unique in the sense that an individual’s ability to exert power over an aggressive male (who is generally bigger in size) entirely depends on her success in bonding with other females in the clan. “Gal-gangs” are often able to prevent males from killing the babies of rival males (as other apes do) and allow females to choose their own mates and access the best food.





J28, Polaris with newborn calf, J54
J28 Polaris and her newborn calf, J54. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, from Center for Whale Research

Southern Resident Killer Whales

Other matriarchal societies in the animal kingdom include, Meerkats, Lions and Killer Whales. The Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) that inhabit the waters of the Pacific Northwest have particularly complex and stable social structures. SRKWs live with their mothers for their entire lives. Groups of whales, called pods, are based on matrilines consisting of the matriarch and her descendants (which form part of the line, as do their descendants).

Similar to Elephants, all of the sexually mature females in a pod are able to breed and offspring are raised with the help of other females in the group.

Southern Resident J16
Southern Resident Killer Whale J16. Photo taken with zoom lens and heavily cropped. SpringTide Archive Photo.

Recently we witnessed an excellent example of this behavior within one of our local pods. In late December 2014, a new baby SRKW was born into J Pod. The baby whale was seen swimming with its presumed mother, J16. The baby whale was also sighted with J36 (J16’s 16 year old daughter) within the first few weeks of its life. Given these circumstances, and the fact that J16 was presumed to be too old to breed, (she was over 40 yrs. old) questions were raised about which whale (J16 or J36) could be the calf’s mother. Some researchers guessed that J16 (the much older female) was simply babysitting while mother J36 was recovering from the birth. It has since been concluded that the older female, J16, is the baby’s mother. However, this was a clear example of how the females in SRKW pods share the responsibility of raising young.

J-Pod also provides an amazing example of a matriarchal society in that the Matriarch, J2 (affectionately known as “Granny”) is the oldest known Killer Whale in the world, estimated to be 103 years old! ‘Granny’ has given birth to many calves and continues to play an active role in the pod, acting as a babysitter for her daughters and leading the pod to their hunting grounds.

It is these intricate and long-lasting relationships that have many marine experts and whale watchers so concerned about future captures of killer whales.  Removal of one or more of these highly intelligent and extremely social animals, especially a matriarch, may have a devastating effect on the survival of the family group.  Going forward we are hopeful that Orca captivity will finally come to an end.

Laas with Others in a Haida canoeMatriarchal Societies are not limited to the animal kingdom. Read skipper Lass’ excellent article Killer Whales and Haida Culture for a personal view on the similarities of her Haida culture and that of the Southern Resident Killer Whale culture.





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