Northern elephant seal mating season on California’s central coast is like a multi-month March Madness, with young males working their way up the hierarchy. Skirmishes begin with two opponents emitting a deafening yodel. Each individual has a unique vocalization, and seals can remember opponents based on their calls. Most interactions end there, but sometimes they escalate. Seals will slam their massive, 4,000-plus pound bodies together, violently biting each other until the winner is decided. The prize for victory? The chance to mate with what biologists call a “harem” of females, transforming a moment of physical power into generations of genetic power. The remaining 95 percent of males will never sire a single pup.
The peculiar, and often violent, efforts of northern elephant seals to secure and maintain power are one of numerous interactions explored in evolutionary biologist Lee Alan Dugatkin’s new book, Power in the Wild. The book explores how power dynamics across sexes, ages, and families pervade all aspects of social life in the animal world, including, Dugatkin writes, “what they eat, where they eat, where they live, whom they mate with, how many offspring they produce, whom they join forces with, whom they work to depose, and more.”
In a series of vignettes, Dugatkin explores the various strategies animals use — from nuanced acts of deception, manipulation, and assessment to outright violence — to assert control over others for access to mates, food, and territory. He also speaks with anthropologists, biologists, and animal behaviorists to understand how scientists understand the evolution of these strategies.
A few “endlessly fascinating” species, like dolphins and ravens, appear several times, but Dugatkin casts a wide net across the animal world. “There are so many incredible systems from which we can learn,” he writes. Hyenas in Kenya will form alliances to maintain the status quo, with “groupies” attaching themselves to cliques of higher-ranking individuals. Loons in Wisconsin will fight to the death to defend the best lakeside spots from unwelcome “floaters” searching for territory. In one particularly visceral example, Dugatkin describes how meerkats in the Kalahari will harass pregnant females until they miscarry or die. By stymieing the reproductive success of underlings, the alpha pair keeps their genetic line dominant and ensures they have no shortage of “babysitters” for their own pups.
It would have been easy for Dugatkin, given the scope of his book, to get bogged down in numbers, names, and details, producing a litany of “gee whiz” facts without any connecting thread. Indeed, it can be hard to keep track of the researchers that pop up across chapters. Yet, on the whole, he manages to balance scientific specificity with linguistic flourishes and descriptive details that kept me immersed. He describes molting elephant seals as more like “gentle-giant plush toys than power-hungry gladiators.” He writes of a “fairy tale” landscape under the baobab trees in Madagascar where “Malagasy giant rats, nocturnal and rarely seen, amaze and terrify humans who are lucky enough to encounter them.” In Wisconsin, a “tremolo call, which seems to waver and tremble in the air like a strange laugh, echoes across the shore.”
Dugatkin’s respect for the researchers behind the science also keeps the story moving. The book is as much a profile of them and their endeavors as the animals they study. He describes light-bulb moments, funding frustrations, and logistical challenges working with animals that don’t take kindly to human interference. A personal favorite is the biologist who designed a hyena-sized robot capable of mimicking the animal’s subtle social gestures.
One of the real joys of the book, though, is Dugatkin’s enthusiasm about the subject. “Science and tales of adventure and wonder are a potent cocktail,” he explains about the joy of writing such a transportive book in the midst of a pandemic. He sees the behaviors he’s describing as “astonishing and informative,” offering an “evolutionary window” into interpersonal dynamics in any social species, including our own. Nevertheless, he stresses that this isn’t a metaphor for power dynamics in humans. In his words, “It’s a standalone tribute to the complexity, the depth, and, dare I say, the beauty of power in animal societies.”
A reader may struggle to tease out all that complexity, but there’s certainly no shortage of depth, beauty, and, yes, power in all his stories.
We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate
Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.