8 Examples of Animal Democracy

African buffalo in the Laikipia savanna, Kenya.
Manoj Shah / Getty Images

Queen bees and alpha chimps aren't voted into office, but that doesn't mean they're despots. Scientists have begun to view many animal species as de facto democracies, where majority rule ensures survival more than tyranny can. Our own species's democratic tendencies date back at least to our prehuman ancestors.

Group decision-making is a hallmark of evolutionary survival that helps maintain stable social bonds among animals. Like with humans, smaller groups of animals can often better achieve a decision-making consensus. While most species don't belabor politics like humans do, our democratic roots can be seen across the animal kingdom — which, in many cases, is more like an animal republic.

of 8

Red Deer

Red deer entering a river.

Tim Graham / Getty Images

The red deer of Eurasia live in large herds, spending lots of time grazing and lying down to ruminate. The deer have what you might call a consensus culture — scientists have noticed that herds only move when just over 60 percent of the adults stand up, essentially voting with their feet. Even if a dominant individual is more experienced and makes fewer mistakes than its underlings, herds typically favor democratic decisions over autocratic ones.

A major reason for this, according to research by biologists Larissa Conradt and Timothy Roper, is that groups are less impulsive. They opined that democratic decision-making tends to "produce less extreme decisions," which mutes any one individual's impulses.

of 8


Chimpanzees eating on yellowed grass.

Matt King / Getty Images

Chimpanzees and bonobos are humans' closest biological relatives, sharing roughly 98 percent of our genome, so it makes sense that we'd share a few behavioral traits. With so much shared DNA, it makes sense that humans and chimps share a propensity for power struggles.

And while there aren't formal elections in chimp society, no alpha male can rule for long without support from a key voting bloc: females. Only after gaining acceptance from the females do the males gain status. Even the alpha male could find himself without a mate if he doesn't give this all-important female approval. If he doesn't, he may soon be overthrown by a rival male.

of 8


Honeybees crawling over a honeycomb.

Jennifer C. / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

While honeybees and other highly social insects live for their queen, they don't live in monarchies. Queen bees don't get up to much activity besides laying eggs: They leave the grunt work of running the hive to workers and drones, the names for female and male honeybees, respectively. These lesser bees may not consciously deliberate like human voters, but their collective will is at the root of the hive's success.

When scout bees perform a waggle dance to pitch future nesting sites, dozens often take part to try and win over the rest of the colony. It sounds similar to a the popularity contest at your local high school, but it can get ugly. To expedite the decision, other bees will head-butt any scouts that stubbornly keep dancing for a less popular site.

of 8

African Buffalo

A herd of African buffalo on a plain.

vrcan / Shutterstock

Similar to red deer, African buffalo are herd herbivores that often make group decisions about when and where to move. In the 1990s, researchers realized that what initially looked like everyday stretching is actually a type of voting-related behavior, in which females indicate their travel preferences by standing up, staring in one direction and then lying back down.

Only the adult females have a say, which holds true regardless of a female's social status.

of 8


Cockroaches on a log.

Michael / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Cockroaches don't have complex social structures like bees and ants, but they may still be capable of democratic decision-making. To test this idea, a team of researchers presented 50 roaches with three shelters, with each holding up to 50 individuals. Since roaches prefer dark to light, they quickly divided into groups and fled into shelters.

But rather than behaving chaotically, the roaches split into groups of 25, half filling two shelters and leaving the third empty. When larger shelters were introduced, the roaches formed a single group in just one of them. Researchers concluded that the roaches were striking a balance between cooperation and competition for resources.

of 8


A baboon sits in tall grass.

 David Havel / Shutterstock

Baboons are monkeys, not apes, but their governing styles still bear some similarities to chimpanzees. Much like in chimp society, dominant male baboons can't get away with dictatorial behavior – they're kept in check by female consensus. According to primatologists James Else and Phyllis Lee, yellow baboons' group decisions about troop movement may be influenced by any adult, but high-ranking males and females seem to have the final say. The authors note that if the two most influential females and an adult male agree with a suggestion from a troop member, a consensus decision can possibly be reached more easily.

of 8


Pigeons in flight over water.

Gary Hershorn / Getty Images

Pigeons rarely get respect on city streets, but they have complex social hierarchies that appear to be somewhat democratic in nature. Researchers have found that while pigeons do choose leaders, those chosen aren't despotic in their rule; they base their decisions on the tendencies of the other pigeons in the flock.

What's more, another study on pigeon social structures discovered that the collective decision-making process to pick a travel path took longer in larger flocks. This is consistent with the idea that the more pigeons in a flock, the more opinions have to be heard.

of 8


A group of meerkats observe the camera.

Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images

Like humans, meerkats have a more vocal approach to decision-making. When deciding where to move next, meerkats emit a soft, aptly titled "moving call." When multiple meerkats make the call, it creates an acoustic chorus that guides the group's next move; according to one study, the area with the most meerkats calling out becomes a "vocal hotspot" which the other meerkats nearby are likely to join in on. Calling it a vote might be a stretch, but it's definitely a key to the efficient way meerkat groups function.