Living in a world like ours, it’s easy to forget that females play crucial leadership roles in the animal kingdom. Take African elephants for example. Herds are commonly led by the oldest female, who mediates conflict between members and decrees how the herd will react to outside dangers. Among orcas too, older females are important members of the pod, valued for their knowledge of habitat, and their ability to find food even in the leanest of times.
Closer home, stump-tailed macaques too display matrilineal kinship. This means that they live in female-bonded social groups, where hierarchy is determined by age, and members groom, babysit, and look out for each other. Unlike male-dominated groups, stump-tailed macaques do not have a single alpha, relying instead on the leadership of a few of their oldest female members. “One might lead the troop while foraging, while another might lead in another activity,” explains Narayan Sharma, who studies the behavioural ecology of the primates of the Upper Brahmaputra Valley. “At least this is what we have observed in the Gibbon Sanctuary. It is difficult to make generalisations because the troops are so large, sometimes having over 100 members. But also because there isn’t enough research.”
Stump-tailed macaques are fascinating primates that are remarkably similar to human beings in some ways, and leagues apart in others. In India, they can be found in the northeastern states, from Assam to Arunachal Pradesh, with healthy populations living in the Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary, near Jorhat in Assam.