Updated: Jul 29, 2020
It is a misconception that in the animal kingdom all Alpha males are bullies, or throw their weight around. While there are some examples where the dominant male or female is a bully, in most cases, the true leader is balanced, fair and is the "chief consoler" when there is tension or conflict in the pack. When a fight erupts among chimps, for example, A good Alpha Male will settle the fight without taking sides. Rather he will intervene in order to restore peace quickly. The main role of the Alpha animal is appropriate vigilance and to protect the well-being of the pack. They make decisions about when to travel, when to rest, what route to take, and countless other life and death decisions for the pack.
Each Alpha personality is unique, and some wield their power with grace and wisdom. An Alpha personality is something the others in the herd instantly recognize. There is only one Alpha in the pack at a time -- but this is a very dynamic thing -- and roles can change. If an Alpha is sick or injured and is being tested by a challenger, and is not up to the challenge, he or she may lose their position.
It is important to note that some species such as Bonobo apes, Elephants, and others have a matriarchal society. The Alpha female is often the wisest, the kindest, and the one who makes many decisions affecting the herd.
If an Alpha is not a well-balanced leader, but instead is a bully, when they become sick or injured, the pack will abandon them in their time of weakness and need. But if an alpha has ruled wisely, the herd will protect him and feed him, even when he can no longer be the leader. Sometimes, even when an elderly chimp has been displaced by a younger and stronger male, if he has been a good leader, he will still be consulted by the younger leader. So, being a kind leader really pays off when the chips are down.
The Science of Alpha Males
Frans de Waal is a Dutch primatologist. He is the author of numerous books, including Chimpanzee Politics and Our Inner Ape. He has done groundbreaking work on such issues as how Capuchin monkeys have a sense of fairness and empathy, and this has been seen in many other species, such as rats in a lab who will forgo a coveted treat if it means that a rat in a neighboring cage will suffer.
Genie Joseph, PhD
Director: The Human-Animal Connection