Animal social structures – solitary or gregarious?
Updated: Nov 3
In this blog, Nico (trainer with Bushwise and finalist for Safari Guide of the Year 2022) describes animal social structures. Discussing animal groupings, animal behaviour and animal dynamics is all part of being a successful guide. As a guide trainer, it’s important to have the skills to pass this information on to your students.
Nico has demonstrated a strong ability to teach and lead as a Bushwise trainer. He stands alongside a strong group of trainers and staff, with a combined over 100 years of experience in this industry. Here he talks about animal social structures, looking specifically at two popular big cat species.
Animal social structures
As the world starts to return to a semi-normal life, there are a couple of things we as a human species can take away from the COVID-19 pandemic. The most important thing I have taken away from the past two years is that we are a very social species. A lot of people around the world struggled with the lockdowns and really struggled when forced to isolate, effectively forcing humans to become solitary.
We crave social interaction for our well-being and when left to ourselves there is a real threat of depression. We have seen this in the latest statistics of depression around the globe. Being a social species has also helped us to be one of the most successful species on earth by working together.
In the natural world, life has continued as normal, with animals even moving into areas closer to human habitation. But looking at the different animal social structures, some species rely a lot on their social structure by working together for their success rather than their well-being.
Some species live a solitary life and some are gregarious (live in groups). This will have an effect on how certain species obtain food, mate and what territory they occupy. We tend to think that animals that live a gregarious life should be more successful, but this is not always the case. Some of the most successful species on earth live a solitary life.
Take leopards, for example. They occur on almost every continent on the planet, making them the most successful big cat on earth. But how does being solitary contribute to the success of this species? If we focus on leopards found in Africa, we can look at what makes this species so successful.
First, we can look at the diet of a leopard. They have an extremely wide range of prey species, from something as small as a beetle to an antelope three times their size. Second, we can look at their body structure and how they hunt. They are built for stealth and very short bursts of speed. They will hide away and try to get as close as they possibly can to their prey. Taking into account the above two points, this cat is able to occupy almost any type of habitat – from the coastal areas of South Africa to the very arid areas of Namibia, and even the highest mountain ranges.
An example of a gregarious animal is a lion, another big cat in Africa, and probably the most well known and most feared predator on earth. It is not only their size, but also because they are the only big cats that work together as a family group that makes lions an apex predator. Lions in some regions of Africa will take down the largest of land mammals, the African elephant. Being social allows them to do this and adds great value to population control. They can live in groups from four to 21 animals, and in some places prides as big as 30 lions have been recorded. Having this many members in a group does come with challenges, with the biggest being food.
If we look at these two different species, we can see how some aspects of each help them be successful in some way or another. The one problem with being social in the animal kingdom is the amount of food needed to survive in a certain area/habitat. Being solitary, you do not have to compete directly with members of the same group for food. However, being social means you have safety in numbers and can work together to be successful, whereas when you are solitary you are on your own.
What social structure applies to Bushwise students?
As a field guide, it’s important to understand animal social structures. This knowledge will make you a better guide, as you’re better able to interpret animal activity, explain why an animal is doing something in a certain way and share insights with your guests. As Nico points out, this applies not only to wildlife, but also humans.
On a Bushwise course, students are gregarious. They learn together, support each other, take turns completing essential camp tasks and look out for one another. But they’re also independent. They’re leaders in their own right, and have unique skills and talents that make them strong guides. At Bushwise, we aim to create some of the best safari guides out there by supporting each student in their development, whether they are social or solitary creatures!
Interested in learning about animal group dynamics, animal behaviour, and seeing this in action? Join a Bushwise course and start gaining wildlife knowledge!