Social relationships and reproductive state influence leadership roles in movements of plains zebra, Equus burchellii

Ilya R. Fischhoff, Siva R. Sundaresan, Justine Cordingley, Heather M. Larkin, Marie Jeanne Sellier, Daniel Ian Rubenstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

221 Scopus citations


In animal groups, collective movements emerge from individual interactions. Biologists seek to identify how characteristics of actors in these groups, and their relationships, influence the decision-making process. We distinguished two basic factors determining leadership in group choices: identity and state. We hypothesized that identity is more important to leadership in groups with stable relationships, which permit the development of habitual roles. In groups with fluid membership, particular individuals or subgroups are less likely to emerge as consistent leaders. Instead, we predicted that movement initiation in unstable groups depends on individual state at the time of the decision. We characterized how identity and reproductive state influenced leadership patterns in the movements of plains zebra. As in many other mammals, lactation in this species significantly alters water and energy needs. We investigated leadership in tightly knit harems and loosely bonded herds of multiple harems. Harem females tended to have habitual roles in the initiation of harem movement. In herds, however, we found no consistent leaders among harems. At both levels of social organization, lactation was a key determinant of leadership. In harems, lactating females were more likely to initiate movement than nonlactating females. In turn, harems containing lactating females were more likely to lead herd movements. Thus, we conclude that social relationships and reproductive state together shape the interactions that produce group behaviours. One benefit to lactating females of leading herd movements is preferential access to scarce water. Thus, leadership roles in group decisions may have fitness consequences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)825-831
Number of pages7
JournalAnimal Behaviour
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2007

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


  • Equus burchellii
  • collective movements
  • drinking
  • equid
  • foraging
  • group dynamics
  • motivation
  • plains zebra
  • reproductive status
  • social relationships


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