8 Animals That Prefer to Dine With Company

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The more the merrier

Photo: K Nimit/Shutterstock

Humans are social eaters. We often share mealtimes with friends or family and use the opportunity to socialize or discuss issues of the day. It's a practice ingrained in our history and language. We break bread, we gather around the table, we "do lunch."

Well, some animals do the same thing ... sort of. They don't reserve a booth at your favorite restaurant, of course, but they do prefer to dine with company rather than solo. While scientists don't know exactly why some animals are social eaters and some are not, they believe it has to do with a mutation in a gene responsible for feeding impulses.

The difference between humans and other animals (as far as social eating goes) lies within our motivation. While humans dine together largely for social reasons, animals do it because they hunt together or need to stay together for protection.

Here's a look at eight animals that are social eaters and how they share a meal.

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Manta rays

Photo: National Geographic video

A drone off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii, captured this footage of giant reef manta rays swimming in a circle. National Geographic reports that this is a social way of eating efficiently. As they filter-feed, the rays take turns being in front, where the most plankton is.

According to Manta Trust, when the plankton is plentiful, manta rays may form feeding chains of several dozen individuals that line up head to tail. That's cool and all, but a very special feeding event at Hanifaru Bay in the Maldives is even more incredible.

"When conditions are perfect and the plankton levels become extremely dense, the chain feeding mantas loop around to form a spiralling column of as many as 150 individuals. These ‘cyclone feeding’ events are spectacular and only occur about a dozen times each year," says Manta Trust. "The column of mantas literally acts like a cyclone, spinning around and around in tight formation the mantas create their own current as a vortex forms in the eye of the cyclone and the filtered water moves up towards the surface."

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Lions

Photo: Ivan Mateev/Shutterstock

A pride of lions may have a king, but the lighter and more agile female lions are the ones that kill the prey and bring home the meal. The San Diego Zoo says that lions typically dine together at dawn and dusk after a successful hunt.

However, there's a certain brutality to lions' social eating structure. The African Lion & Environmental Research Trust says that although lions hunt together, the males eat first — and they're pretty greedy. Generally lions aren't very good about sharing their food.

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Zebras

Photo: mrcmos/Shutterstock

Zebras are an example of animals that eat together out of necessity. Their herd mentality makes them tougher targets to attack. They graze on grass and grind leaves and bark for 60 to 80 percent of the day, according to The Smithsonian's National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute.

Unlike the lions that hunt them, they have no social hierarchy among their harems. Several mare-foal pairs make up female zebra herds, and male zebras form bachelor herds with no apparent leader, the National Zoo says. All are welcome to eat whenever they please.

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Meerkats

Photo: Aleksei Lazukov/Shutterstock

Meerkats understand that there's strength in numbers, though individual meerkats usually find their own food, according to the San Diego Zoo. However, when they take down larger prey, such as a lizard or snake, meerkats feast on their prize as a mob.

This highly social mongoose species lives in burrows with up to 40 members. Since they have no fat stores, they must forage for food every day. When they do, one or more meerkats will stand sentry while other members eat to warn them of approaching dangers, reports the World Animal Foundation. "When a predator is spotted, the meerkat performing as sentry will give a warning bark, and all other members of the gang will run and hide in one of the many bolt holes the meerkats will have spread across their territory."

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Hyenas

Photo: frerd/Shutterstock

Spotted hyenas scavenge together, hunt together and feast together, says the San Diego Zoo. And the bigger the group (called a cackle), the bigger the prey they take down. A cackle may also chase an adult male lion (they're biggest food competition) away from a kill to keep it for themselves.

It's not a pretty picture, but the Smithsonian Magazine describes mealtime as such: "A frenzied scrum of them can dismantle and devour a 400-pound zebra in 25 minutes. An adult spotted hyena can tear off and swallow 30 or 40 pounds of meat per feeding. Latecomers to a kill use their massive jaw muscles and molars to pulverize the bones for minerals and fatty marrow."

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Vultures

Photo: Karel Bartik/Shutterstock

Vultures may seek out carrion on their own or in flocks, and once they find it, word spreads fast. The message is relayed quickly to other birds, and soon the masses join the feast. The San Diego Zoo calls these scavengers "nature’s cleanup crew," and if you're late to the table, you don't eat.

Some species of vultures roost with just 10 or 12 others, while other species live in colonies with up to 1,000 individuals. That's a lot of beaks to feed.

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Flamingos

Photo: Yulia Avanessova/Shutterstock

A flock (also called a flamboyance) of flamingos may look pretty from a distance, but the birds have a dirty little secret when it comes to eating. Their meals involve a lot of backwash, says the San Diego Zoo, because many birds feed from the same shallow water.

Just how many? Flock sizes may consist of more than 300 individuals, while tens of thousands of flamingos can make up a colony, according to Sea World.

Like zebras, flamingos find protection in their numbers. Non-feeding flamingos serve as a lookout while other birds filter-feed in the muck. However, their flock size and social nature can be a weakness, too. If a water source is polluted, an entire flamboyance is at risk.

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Humpback whales

Photo: Adam Stockland/Shutterstock

Humpback whales, which are filter-feeders that eat krill, plankton or small fish, engage in a complex method of eating called bubble net feeding. It starts with a pod of whales diving down below a school of fish and swimming in a circle around the prey, sending columns of air bubbles upward from their blowholes as they swim. This momentum forces the prey into the center of the circle and toward the surface, where the whales burst out of the water with their mouths wide open to eat.

Talk about a team effort. They do this only during the summer months, and they live off fat reserves in the winter when they migrate to mate and reproduce.