8 Animals That Prefer to Dine With Company

Flock of flamingos in pool of water with waterfall in background, in Kenya

Shankar S / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Humans are social eaters. We often share meals with friends or family and use the opportunity to socialize or discuss issues of the day.

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

school of manta rays feeding
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Manta rays sometimes feed individually and employ many feeding strategies that they coordinate with other mantas. These strategies change depending on the availability of plankton. They will form lines like migrating geese, for example, which sometimes involves 150 rays swimming in a tight circle to create a cyclone feeding event. These formations last up to an hour and create a vortex in the center. When viewed from above, it appears as a counterclockwise spiral. The vortex causes the plankton-filled water to flow into their open mouths, which they then sift through rake-like gill plates.

Manta rays also use a piggyback feeding strategy where a smaller ray swims directly on top of another feeding ray, coordinating pectoral fin flaps. These piggyback stacks can have as many as four rays involved. The strategy allows the lower manta rays to capture the plankton that descends to avoid the ray's open mouth higher in the stack.

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Pride of lines on brown grassy savannah eating a rhinoceros

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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. Lions typically dine together at dawn and dusk after a successful hunt.

However, there's a particular brutality to lions' social eating structure. Although lions hunt together, the males eat first — and they're greedy. When the males are finished, the females who hunted partake in the feast, followed by the other females and then the cubs.

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Four zebras eating grass

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Zebras are an example of animals that eat together out of necessity. Their herd mentality makes them more challenging targets to attack. They graze on grass and grind leaves and bark for 60 to 80 percent of the day. They prefer particular types of green grasses as food, and their efforts to find those grasses make them a pioneer species leading the way for other grazing animals on the savannah.

Unlike the lions that hunt them, they have no social hierarchy among their family groups. Several mare-foal pairs make up female zebra family groups, and male zebras form bachelor herds with no apparent leader. These family groups stick together when they join massive herds.

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15 meerkats clustered together on a rock

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Meerkats understand that there's strength in numbers, though individual meerkats usually find their own food. 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.

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Four hyenas in foreground eating, others in background partially obscured by brown grass

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Spotted hyenas scavenge together, hunt together, and feast together. The bigger the group (called a cackle), the bigger the prey they hunt. A cackle may also chase an adult male lion (their biggest food competition) away from a kill to keep it for themselves.

Mealtime for hyenas is no laughing matter. Adult spotted hyenas can consume 30-40 pounds of meat in 25 minutes. The early bird gets the carrion in this case; latecomers to meals end up crunching and pulverizing the leftover bones. They later vomit the hooves and hair.

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Thick group of vultures feeding on carrion

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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 you don't eat if you're late to the table.

Some 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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Flock of flamingos dining in shallow water

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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. They eat by stirring up muddy water with their feet and scooping up the water. They strain the water with a specialized beak and eat the bugs, crustaceans, and plants.

Just how many? Flock sizes may consist of up to 340 individuals, while tens of thousands of flamingos can make up a colony.

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

pod of humpback whales breaching and feeding

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Humpback whales, which are filter-feeders that eat krill, plankton, and small fish, engage in a complicated eating method 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 fish into the center and toward the surface. The whales then burst out of the water with their mouths wide open to eat.

Talk about a team effort. Humpback whales only feed during winter months and live off fat reserves when they migrate to mate and reproduce.