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‘Planet Earth: Incredible Families’
Which animal family would viewers be most surprised to learn are led by a matriarch? And which animal would viewers be most surprised to learn are led by a patriarch?
Thomas: A good example of a mammalian matriarch would be the Spotted Hyena, in which females are larger and more dominant than males. Both the females and males in a hyena clan have their own separate dominant hierarchies, but the female hyenas are dominant to males and led by that matriarch.
In terms of a species where you have a patriarch, I think a classic example would be gorillas, where troops are led by a silver back and they direct troop movements. The adult males protect females and offspring. They decide where and when the troop will move from one area to another and bed down for the evening.
I’m interested to hear in any of your research over the years, have you ever noticed a dynamic change where one group is known for the matriarch being the leader to a patriarch?
Thomas: It probably is highly unlikely. You might have a situation where if you have an extraordinarily small clan of Spotted Hyenas and there was only one adult female and she was either killed by a lion or in a hunting episode and the other clan members were adult males or young adult females, you might temporarily have those males assume a leadership role, but that would be pretty atypical and extraordinary. It wouldn’t be something that you would expect to occur as long as there was an adult female in place. If there were two adult females in the matriarch and the dominant female were to leave the pack or die, there wouldn’t be an older male that would take over, it would be the younger female.
In your field research, which birthing technique were you most surprised by and why?
Thomas: I think the one that often surprises people is that giraffes give birth standing up. A female giraffe, while standing, will begin to expel a calf. The calf typically doesn’t just come out all at once. It will come out slowly, initially, and then when a significant percentage of its body is outside the female, gravity takes over. It’s not like the calf drops from a height of six or seven feet to the ground, but it’s certainly probably a couple of feet from the ground when it finally is expelled.