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Power in the Wild

The Subtle and Not-So-Subtle Ways Animals Strive for Control over Others

Power in the Wild

The Subtle and Not-So-Subtle Ways Animals Strive for Control over Others

From the shell wars of hermit crabs to little blue penguins spying on potential rivals, power struggles in the animal kingdom are as diverse as they are fascinating, and this book illuminates their surprising range and connections.
The quest for power in animals is so much richer, so much more nuanced than who wins what knock-down, drag-out fight. Indeed, power struggles among animals often look more like an opera than a boxing match. Tracing the path to power for over thirty different species on six continents, writer and behavioral ecologist Lee Alan Dugatkin takes us on a journey around the globe, shepherded by leading researchers who have discovered that in everything from hyenas to dolphins, bonobos to field mice, cichlid fish to cuttlefish, copperhead snakes to ravens, and meerkats to mongooses, power revolves around spying, deception, manipulation, forming and breaking up alliances, complex assessments of potential opponents, building social networks, and more. Power pervades every aspect of the social life of animals: what they eat, where they eat, where they live, whom they mate with, how many offspring they produce, whom they join forces with, and whom they work to depose. In some species, power can even change an animal’s sex. Nor are humans invulnerable to this magnificently intricate melodrama: Dugatkin’s tales of the researchers studying power in animals are full of unexpected pitfalls, twists and turns, serendipity, and the pure joy of scientific discovery.

An audiobook version is available.

208 pages | 8 color plates, 1 halftones, 1 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2022

Biological Sciences: Behavioral Biology, Biology--Systematics, Evolutionary Biology, Natural History

Psychology: Animal Behavior


"A scrupulously scientific but highly accessible tour of power’s manifestations among caribou, bonobos, deer, dolphins, hyenas, meerkats, mice, mongooses (mongeese?)—and those are just some of the mammals. . . . Readable and intellectually satisfying. . . . Compact but very gratifying. . . . True to its title, Power in the Wild doesn’t address Homo sapiens. But the anthropocentrically inclined will find that the power dynamics of nonhuman animals offer plenty of insight into our own, distorted a bit as in a funhouse mirror. For the open-minded, Dugatkin’s depiction of power in the wild yields a stunningly provocative reflection."

David P. Barash | Wall Street Journal

Power in the Wild, by behavioral ecologist Dugatkin, reveals the realpolitik behind the lives of sweet-looking creatures from meerkats to field mice, as he examines the eternal struggle for dominance in nature.”

New Scientist, "Don't Miss"

"While visiting a wolf research park in Austria, animal behaviorist Dugatkin was startled to see one male sitting on top of another, clamping its snout in its jaws. The park’s director assured him there was no harm involved, only a display of power. This theme defines Dugatkin’s engaging book, which is based on the work of many scientists with a huge range of animals from around the world, including baboons, dolphins, mongooses and ravens. 'Power pervades every aspect of the social lives of animals,' he says."

Andrew Robinson | Nature

"From ants to cuttlefish to wolves, this entertaining book surveys various species’ strategies for maintaining control. . . . Dugatkin’s snappy prose enlivens his evolutionary explanations, as of a discussion of how new technology aids in data collection. He is deliberate about highlighting the work of women researchers. Power in the Wild is a charming tour through the wonderful, sometimes bizarre realities of animal behavior."

Foreword Reviews

"Power struggles in the animal kingdom are still not entirely understood, not least when they take place in many more arenas and forms than the most obvious one of physical conflict. Spying, deception, manipulation, shifting social networks—all these are covered here. The author looks at more than thirty species across six continents."


“Timely and fascinating. . . . Dugatkin’s book is great food for thought regarding the nature of power, equality, and equity, the origins of justice and the origins of sociality in animals—including our own species.”

Sheng-Feng Shen, Biodiversity Research Center, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan | Nature Ecology & Evolution

"It would have been easy for Dugatkin, given the scope of his book, to get bogged down in numbers, names, and details, producing a litany of 'gee whiz' facts without any connecting thread. . . . Yet, on the whole, he manages to balance scientific specificity with linguistic flourishes and descriptive details that kept me immersed. . . . Dugatkin's respect for the researchers behind the science also keeps the story moving. The book is as much a profile of them and their endeavors as the animals they study. . . . One of the real joys of the book, though, is Dugatkin's enthusiasm about the subject.”

Leah Campbell | Earth Island Journal

“A brilliant journey into the intricate dramas of animal behavior and evolution. Along the way, we also see the scientific process in vivid light, a wonderful exposition of how to deepen understanding of the living world.”

David George Haskell, Sewanee: The University of the South, author of Pulitzer finalist "The Forest Unseen" and Burroughs medalist "The Songs of Trees"

“Power, and the way it is won and lost, unites angelfish and weaverbirds, ravens and cockroaches. By revealing its stunning variety in nature, Dugatkin shows how power isn’t necessarily abusive, or ugly—it’s simply a fact of life. From confrontation to espionage, with coalitions formed and dissolved, his absorbing stories explore how animals juggle their relationships and play a long game.”

Marlene Zuk, Regents Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, University of Minnesota, author of "Paleofantasy" and "Sex on Six Legs"

“Entertaining anecdotes and scholarly science effortlessly entwine in this delightfully raucous romp through decades of research on the nature of power in the animal kingdom. A great read whether you’re a student, scientist, or amateur animal behavior enthusiast.”

Athena Aktipis, Arizona State University, author of "The Cheating Cell"

“‘Biology’ means ‘the study of life,’ and it requires the story of life. Admirers of Dugatkin’s acclaimed books such as How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) know that he tells rousing stories about nature and how scientists decipher its mysteries. There could not be a more pervasive aspect of life than power dynamics, nor one that more greatly influences nature’s slow change over time. For fans of both science writing and nature writing, Power in the Wild teems with enough animals and scientists around the world to satisfy David Attenborough—whose urbane narration comes to mind as one enlightening glimpse of nature follows another in this lucid and lively celebration of nature's diversity.”

Michael Sims, author of "Adam’s Navel" and "The Adventures of Henry Thoreau"

Table of Contents

1 Chart a Path to Power 
2 Weigh Costs and Benefits 
3 Assess Thy Rivals 
4 Watch and Be Watched 
5 Build Alliances 
6 Cement the Hold 
7 Survive the Battles 
8 Rise and Fall 


The Wolf Science Research Park is about an hour’s drive due north of Vienna. In the winter of 2018, I was visiting there to give a talk on my book How to Tame a Foxand Build a Dog. That book is all about an ongoing 62-year-long experiment studying domestication in silver foxes in real time in Novosibirsk, Russia. From the start of that experiment, Lyudmila Trut, my coauthor on the book, and her colleagues have been especially interested in dog domestication. For a whole suite of reasons—scientific, logistical, and political—they have been using the silver fox (Vulpes vulpes) as a stand-in for the wolf to study, step by step, how domestication occurs. So the chance for me to spend some time up close and personal with wolves was, to say the least, exciting.

Shortly after I gave my lecture, Kurt Kotrschal, my host and the director of the park, took me on a tour of the facilities, which house a half dozen or so wolf packs, each in its own outdoor enclosure. Kurt and his colleagues raise every wolf from birth, and each wolf knows these humans well. His research group has studied many aspects of the social behavior of these wondrous creatures—everything from feeding and choice of mates to cooperation (with other wolves as well as with humans), play behavior, exploration, fear, dominance, and power. The wolves never fail to teach Kurt’s team something new.

It’s a large research park, and each pack of wolves has its own fenced-off territory. There are also indoor facilities where the wolves are weighed and measured and experiments are run. As Kurt and I passed through the gate into the territory of one pack, he told me the standard operating procedure: when a wolf approaches, I was to get down on my knees, not make any sudden moves, and, as Kurt made very clear, “engage in friendly eye contact, but don’t stare—just like with humans.” The “not make any sudden moves” directive was not especially reassuring, but I trusted that Kurt knew these animals as well as any human can.
A large older male wolf approached us, and Kurt fed him a few pieces of food that he kept in his pocket for just such occasions. That wolf then ambled over to me—on my knees as instructed—lifted his paw and, for a brief instant, placed it on my shoulder. It was simultaneously terrifying and wonderful, and I sat there in awe, thinking, “That is one powerful animal. He could clearly kill me, if he so desired.”

That’s one component of power: strength. But it’s a rather mundane, not especially interesting, component. A few minutes later, I was treated to a more dynamic, intriguing way that power manifests itself. As Kurt and I walked past a different pack, most of the animals were going about their daily routine, which, for the most part, meant lazing about, doing nothing. But the two wolves nearest us were engaged in rather different business. One was sitting on top of the other, with its jaws clamped down on the snout of the unfortunate below it. I was clearly taken aback, and Kurt, sensing my discomfort, told me that the dominant male was not harming the subordinate in its lock. It was performing a display of power, an “I’m in charge here” display, he told me, meant for the subordinate and perhaps for Kurt and me as well.

As we moved along the gravel road that runs through the Wolf Science Research Park, Kurt and I came upon another set of large fenced-off enclosures. Each housed a pack of dogs, all raised by humans. The dogs, like the wolf packs, were free to do as they pleased as Kurt and his team did what they could to record their daily lives and run experiments on them, as they were doing with the wolves. Indeed, one day they hope to get some of Lyudmila’s domesticated foxes and raise them by hand like the wolves and dogs, so that they can compare power dynamics, and many other things, across all three canine species.
The quest for power played out differently in those dogs than in the wolves across the road. It seemed, and Kurt confirmed this, that their interactions were a bit more chaotic, that attaining power revolved around petty, aggressive, and, on rare occasions, dangerous scrums to rise up to the top of the heap.
For the last thirty years, I’ve been studying many aspects of the evolution of social behavior. When I started in graduate school, I had honed down my list of dissertation topics to either the evolution of cooperation or the evolution of dominance. In time, it became clear to me that these topics are not mutually exclusive, but I did see them that way back in 1988 and felt that I needed to make a choice. I settled on the evolution of cooperation, mostly because the field of animal behavior was abuzz with ideas about cooperation and altruism at that time. But it was a very close call, and my passion for understanding dominance led to a few side projects on that topic as I worked on my dissertation. I added studies on cultural transmission in animals to those I was doing on cooperation and dominance, and over time I realized that social behavior in all these areas involved subtle, nuanced assessments and decisions. So many of those social decisions, like those Kurt’s wolves and dogs were making, revolved around the ability to direct, control, or influence the behavior of others and/or the ability to control access to resources: what I am defining throughout this book as power. That realization was a cathartic experience for me, and judging from the published literature in animal behavior, I’m not alone. Right now, all over the planet, the work on power in nonhumans has become so cutting-edge, so exciting, and so replete with adventure, that it’s time to tell its story.
Power—or more specifically the quest to attain and maintain power—lies at the heart of almost all animal societies. The subtle, and often not-so-subtle, ways that animals seek power over those around them are astonishing and informative, both in and of themselves and because they provide an evolutionary window through which we can better understand behavioral dynamics in group-living species.
In these pages you’ll discover that animal behaviorists (also called ethologists), psychologists, anthropologists, and other scientists have come to realize that power pervades every aspect of the social lives of animals: what they eat, where they eat, where they live, who they mate with, how many offspring they produce, who they join forces with, who they work to depose, and more. Sometimes power struggles are between males, sometimes between females, and sometimes across sexes. At times, power pits young against old; at other times, the struggle is mostly with peers. Sometimes kin are pitted against one another, and other times they join forces to usurp the power of others.

With so much at stake, the quest for power may involve overt aggression, but many times it entails the use of more nuanced strategic behaviors: complex assessments of potential opponents, spying, deception, manipulation, formation of alliances, and the building of social networks, to name just a few. What’s more, researchers have developed theories to understand the evolution of those strategic paths to power, and have derived and tested predictions generated by those theories, both in the field and in the laboratory. Understandably, much of that work focuses on behavior per se, but we’ll also be getting glimpses of the hormones, genes, and neural circuitry underlying power.

Chapter 1 will provide an overview of the incredible ways that power manifests itself in nonhumans, while chapter 2 will examine the costs and benefits that drive the evolutionary trajectories that power takes. After the basic framework in these chapters is in place, we will explore how animals assess one another in the struggle for power (chapter 3). In so doing, we will dive into the myriad ways that nonhumans employ information from their own experiences, as well as what they have gleaned by watching (and being watched by) others, in part to form alliances critical to the struggle for power (chapters 4–5) and to cement their hold on power should they attain it (chapter 6). From there, we will explore how and why, in some species, group dynamics play an important role in building power structures (chapter 7). Finally, in chapter 8, we will see that while power structures are often stable, sometimes they crumble, only to be rebuilt in new ways. The species included in each chapter are not the only ones that inform our understanding of power, but rather the ones particularly well suited to do so.

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