If you thought the world’s greatest ‘pack’ hunters are wolves, technically you’re probably right. But there’s quite a few species that cooperatively hunt like wolves whose social units aren’t called packs, rather basks, drafts, pods, prides, casts, clans, colonies, congregations and troops.
While the vast majority of meat-eaters hunt alone, there are a small percentage of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles that have evolved to take advantage of the power of the metaphorical pack. Grouping up to take down prey lessens individual effort and risk. It also greatly increases the size and type of targets a unit can take on.
There’s no definitive list of all the animals that utilise cooperative or collaborative hunting just yet. As with any good animal query the more researchers consider the question the more examples they find. Here are a few of the neatest cases. Don’t worry; we’ll explain all those terms above along the way.
The true pack hunters: Wolves and African wild dogs
There are only two species of wolves in the world, the grey wolf (Canis lupus) and the red wolf (Canis rufus), but there’s as many as 17 subspecies of grey wolves alone and all wolf species worldwide live and hunt in packs.
Wolves live incredibly social lives, the pack a big family unit including a dominant or alpha male and female, who don’t get their rank by cunning or brawn but are basically just glorified parents. By six months of age, most pups begin travelling and hunting with the pack, where the majority will stay for the next two to three years before becoming sexually mature and leaving the pack to find new territory and mates. Packs can range from two to nearly 30 in size. In Europe wolf packs are typically smaller, with between two and five members, yet in North America there’s rumours of packs 50 strong.
Wolves are excellent scavengers, willing to eat just about anything, but to take down the type of prey that sustains their daily required five to 10lbs of meat, numbers are necessary. Elk, deer and moose may seem tame and temperate, but tackling one of these big critters is hard, dangerous work, requiring every member of the pack.
Yet even with the power of the pack on their side, wolves are typically only successfully some three to 14 per cent of the time.
African wild dogs also live in packs of up to 27 individuals, capable of taking down massive prey like a wildebeest weighing in at 250kg. Packs rely on the cooler temperatures and normally lion-free hours near dawn and dusk, and when they encounter prey, focus on getting their target to the ground so the full force of the group can enter in. Pups get to feed first.
Just like wolves, African wild dogs are under serious threat. Their meaty dietary needs mean they need huge plots of continuous habitat to support each pack and puts them in near constant contact with humans. Today the species is endangered, with only an estimated 5,500 or fewer of the animals remaining in the wild.
With uneven and often scarce resources, other plains carnivores like the spotted hyena clans often scavenge for their meals, but tackle bigger prey together. Lion pride hunting is clearly cooperative, though females do most if not all of the work.
The great pod hunters
Orcas, dolphins, and false killer whales have all been shown to hunt as a pod, relying on the combined force of the whole group to wrangle big prey like tuna and mahi-mahi. Like a pack, the pod that hunts together also lives together.
‘False killer whales have a very rigid social structure, living in clusters where membership rules are strict,’ says Jochen Zaeschmar with Massey University’s Coastal-Marine Research Group. He says while we’ve got a lot left to learn about the species, both places false killer whales have been extensively studied, New Zealand and Hawaii, the same rules applied. ‘The only way into a pod is to be born into it and the only way out is to die.’
Females are the leader of the group, living longer and retaining more important information to direct the pod than their male peers. Zaeschmar says males come and go, seeking mates, but always return to their group, similar to matriarchal orca culture.
Pods offer the same perks of the pack, but hunting in the open ocean is seriously hard work, sparking the need for intimate reliances with other species. Zaeschmar’s documented super pods of bottlenose dolphins and false killer whales living and hunting in groups hundreds of members strong. Using fin markings as identifying markers, Zaeschmar found that the species sometimes bond together for life, familiar with one another and even sharing basic chores like babysitting.
‘In all my time working with false killer whales I’ve never seen them without bottlenose dolphins,’ says Zaeschmar. ‘The makeup of the false killers mostly stay the same while the dolphin’s groupings are more fluid, tying in with dolphin culture, a more fusion society.’
Zaeschmar says the drive behind the super pod is likely food. The prey sources they’re after are unevenly spread out and school in the thousands if not millions. Some, like tuna, are also sturdy speedsters.
Zaeschmar explains the super pod works together to wrangle each animal’s fish favourites. False killers love mackerel type species, whose schools are normally surrounded by the larger fishes that bottlenoses prefer. False killers will even share large catches the dolphins couldn’t possibly take down alone. The super pod also helps lessen the risks associated with taking on bigger prey and searching for food.
‘The super pod protects individuals against predation, offering a diluting effect, says Zaeschmar. ‘In a large group the chance that you’re the one who gets eaten during an attack greatly decreases.’
Zaeschmar says a lot more data is needed to fully explain the interesting relationship between false killers and bottlenoses. In Hawaii the super pods haven’t been seen. But despite the conclusive evidence, Zaeschmar says one thing is clear about the super pods he’s noted in New Zealand.
‘These animals are definitely dependent on one another to do what they do,’ says Zaeschmar.
The cast, flock, colony, cluster, congregation, bask and draft hunters
Some of the more socially inclined raptors have also adopted cooperative hunting techniques, ranging from the smaller casts of pair hunting sooty, saker, and Eleonora’s falcons to the larger group efforts of Harris’ hawks. Butcherbirds are also known hunt both alone and in combinations of two to three adults and a couple of youngsters. Several species of helmetshrike also live and forage in flocks of 20 plus individuals.
Insects group hunt too, one of the prime examples being the raiding parties of army ants. Hundreds of thousands to millions of the ants live together in nomadic colonies, traveling from location to location based on the needs of the queen and along the way literally destroying everything in their path. Snakes, birds, lizards, and small mammals—not much stands a chance against the entire colony when it decides to pick up and move. The ants swarm and subdue their prey with their tough jaws and mandibles, then begin the process of dissembling the victim and sharing it. A few fish species also display cooperative or coordinated hunting in drafts, like the yellow saddle goatfish, grouping to hunt in dense coral.
Like a scene out of a horror flick social spiders also live in massive colonies that can number in the thousands, sharing and maintaining communal webs like Anelosimus eximius. Equally terrifying, the occasional coordinated hunting exploits of groups of crocodiles (basks or floats) and alligators (congregations) have just recently been proven, just as in other pack methods each animal taking on a different role, such as driver or ambusher.
The ultimate pack hunter
If you think about the history and evolution of our own species, humans could be considered the most successful pack hunter of all time.
Researchers have long been aware of the temporary carnivorous and often cannibalistic tendencies of chimpanzees. Though apes tend to be omnivorous like us, gorging on seasonal fruits, insects, and vegetation, for whatever reason, sometimes chimps seem to get meat cravings, forming hunting troops to hunt small mammals and monkeys. Most of the time only males engage in this behaviour, and only do so a few times in an average year.
Nicholas Newton-Fisher, a primate behavioural ecologist with the University of Kent, has worked extensively on the topic of chimpanzee hunting. He says Jane Goodall made the first major observations of this group trick. Since then many different theories have been brought forward to explain the phenomena.
‘Most ideas today centre around the nutritional benefits of meat, providing vitamins, minerals and particularly amino acids not found or abundant in typical food sources,’ says Newton-Fisher. ‘The hunting method varies between populations, but most tend to be monkey specialists and wherever there are chimps, they’ve been found to conduct some level of hunting.’
Red Columbus monkeys are the prey species of choice but if they’re not around, substitutes will be chosen, Newton-Fisher says. While most Eastern African chimps don’t take on assigned roles during the hunt, some Western populations’ hunting sessions may be driven by certain ‘impact hunters’, males especially good at the skill that seem to encourage on their peers.
Exploring the root of chimp hunting habits could help explain when and how our ancestors began eating meat, which if you make the horrible mistake of watching YouTube clips of the animals at work, is a bit of a terrifying thought. Newton-Fisher says there are probably more apes that cooperatively hunt. There’s already some evidence bonobos do.
‘Whatever the true story may be, it seems that group hunting is something that we as a species, and some apes, have been engaging in for a very long time,’ says Newton-Fisher.
So from the large to the small, furry to the scaly, and everything in between, the world has many different predators who have discovered the perks of communal living, or at least, dining—we’ve only covered some highlights. Who knows what other nifty and clever group tricks our planet’s great carnivores have come up with that researchers have simply never had the privilege of viewing. Fingers crossed none are quite as disturbingly self-reflective as chimp methods.
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