Animals That Vote

By Anne Cissel; Art by Jay Fosgitt

Believe it or not, some animals hold “elections” in the wild! 

Tap image for a closer view.

This November, we in the United States will elect a president. That’s because we live in a democracy (deh-MAH-kruh-see), which means we choose our leaders by voting in elections. Every citizen who is 18 or older gets a chance to take part in the decision. A long, long time ago, a king made all the decisions and told everyone what to do. Not very fair!

It turns out we humans aren’t the only ones in the animal kingdom that vote. Animals that live in groups have to make lots of decisions together. Some animals have amazing ways of making a group choice. Let’s take a look at some animal “elections”!

When someone wants to be elected, she or he first has to campaign (kam-PAYN). That means that a person has to convince other people he or she is the best person for the job. Before an election, you’ll see lots of ads on TV, as well as flyers in your mailbox, for different candidates (people running for office).

When it’s time to choose a new place to live, honey bees campaign—with a dance party! Some bees move to a new hive when their old hive gets too crowded. The queen bee and a swarm of bees will all leave together. (The remaining bees will choose a new queen.) They will rest in a group out in the open while a few hundred female “scouts” go out to search for a new home.

When a scout comes back from discovering a good new space, she performs a wiggly dance that tells the other bees where the new place is. Scientists actually call it a “waggle dance”!

The better the site, the longer and more excitedly the scout dances. And that convinces other scouts to visit that site. If they believe that it is a great site, they come back and start dancing the same way. Eventually, all the scouts start doing the same waggle dance. Finally, all the bees take off for their new home.

So, instead of the queen bee saying, “This is where we are going,” the honey bees make a group decision. Sounds fair!

Tap image for a closer view.

Meerkats hang out in groups and work really well together. In the southern African deserts and grasslands where they live, they help each other find food, care for babies, and escape predators. They are most known for how they rise up on their hinds legs and stand guard. Meerkats have different calls to warn their pals about different kinds of danger.

But there is one type of meerkat call that scientists have compared to voting. The meerkats hunt in groups, each looking for bugs and other morsels to eat. Sometimes a few members of the group decide it’s time to move on from one area to seek food elsewhere. To let the others know what they think, they make a soft mew, known as a “moving call.” When at least three meerkats make this call, the whole group decides to move on.

It’s kind of like when your family finishes dinner and then tries to decide if you all should go out for ice cream. When most of the family agrees, everyone jumps in the car!

While meerkats vote with their voices, olive baboons vote with their feet. These African monkeys live in close groups called troops. To learn more about how baboons get along, scientists put small tracking devices on some monkeys in Kenya as their troop traveled around looking for food. These devices recorded everywhere each baboon went for two weeks.

The scientists saw that different baboons led the troop around. But sometimes, the leaders disagreed on which path to choose, with some baboons moving in one direction and others moving in another. This is when something interesting happened. If the two paths were fairly close together, the other baboons would head in a direction halfway between the paths. But if the paths were far apart, the remaining baboons would choose the direction with the larger number of “supporters.” As in any democracy, the baboon leader with the most “votes” won!

African wild dogs move in packs—hunting, eating, and sleeping together. When it’s time to decide whether to hunt, the dogs jump up and down and greet each other with excitement. This is called a rally. (Humans have rallies, too, where lots of people get together to cheer on their favorite candidate.)

Scientists discovered that the dogs also begin sneezing during a rally. But the dogs aren’t sick or suffering from allergies—it’s a kind of voting! The more sneezes that happen, the more likely the dogs are to decide to hunt.

But not all achoos are equal. The scientists found that if a high-ranking dog was involved in a rally, there needed to be only three. If the rally was made up of lower-ranking dogs, far more sneezes were needed.

Scientists don’t know if the dogs choose to sneeze or if they don’t have control over the sneezes. When humans vote, it’s always a choice!


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