The Current

'Mommy Wildest': Female-led animal families smash the patriarchy

A new documentary turns our idea of who rules in the animal kingdom on its head, revealing animals like lions, elephants and baboons live in powerful matriarchies.
A lioness cares for her cub in a new Nature of Things documentary. The film asks us to reconsider if the lion is really king.
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In Disney's Lion King, young Simba is heir to the Pride Lands of Africa. He battles his uncle for the throne, but in the end, he takes his place with his wife at his side. 

It may be a heartwarming story, but a nature documentary, it is not.     

It turns out, Disney got its Lion pride politics all wrong.  In truth, it's the females that rule on the Serengeti planes of Africa.

Father-daughter producer team Mark and Caitlin Starowicz spent two months on the Kenyan savannahs filming animals in the wild.  

Their new documentary is titled, "Mommy Wildest" and it looks at lion, elephant and baboon matriarchial societies.

An egalitarian sisterhood of lions who defends and hands down their territory to their daughters. 1:05

Female lions live together and care for each other's young, Mark Starowicz tells The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

"Lion societies are a mammal democracy. The signals between them, how they appear to coordinate a hunt, what direction to move in, is striking," says Starowicz.

When it comes to the elephants, it's the eldest female that leads the herd. "It's a meritocracy", says Caitlin Starowicz. 

"The leader is always the oldest and wisest grandmother of the herd. It's lovely because they have such respect for wisdom. She knows where to find waterholes during drought, she knows how to teach her daughters to raise their young,"  Starowicz tells Lynch.

Grandma knows best. Old female elephants are one of the few species that goes through menopause, but a grandmother's knowledge is key to the survival of the herd. 1:17

Elephants use their trunks to communicate vital information and friendship. "They use them to comfort each other, how to use twigs as fly swatters, they are constantly touching each other."

Unlike the democratic societies of the lions or the meritocracy seen with the elephant herds, baboons are more like a royal family ruled by a queen. Her prized child is her youngest daughter. It's this daughter's long reproductive years that are highly valued.  And it's their strong female friendships that help the baboons live longer.

Father daughter team Mark and Caitlin Starowicz offer striking views in their new documentary. (Nature of Things)

"The more friendships you have, the more you groom each other .. and the more you remove ticks. The more ticks you remove..., the healthier you are..," says Mark Starwoicz. 

The final take away from all of these three matriarchial societies?  "I was very very impressed and surprised with the co-operation and the friendship that was used as an evolutionary tactic," says Caitlin Starowicz.

"They look out for each other... it's something we see in humans as well; it's a direct parallel. Individuals that are socially connected have a better life than socially isolated individuals."

 The full program will be available to watch online later today — on The Nature of Things — for a limited time.

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This segment was produced by The Current's Lara O'Brien.