Which animals can teach us about teamwork?

Mankind can learn a lot about the importance of teamwork by observing animals in their natural habitats.

Many animals, from tiny insects to large mammals, depend on their teammates to survive in harsh environments and fend off would-be predators.

Similar principles apply to the survival of your business.

In order for your business to withstand the challenges of a free market, your team must be firing on all cylinders.

In this article, we talk about some of mother nature’s best teams and what we can learn from them.

1. Honey bees: role delegation on a massive scale

Groups of honey bees, otherwise known as “swarms”, are one of the most efficient teams in the natural world.

In order to pollinate plants and produce honey, they’ve developed an ingenious role-delegation system which ensures maximum efficiency.

And with as many as 60,000 bees living in one hive, this is no mean feat.

Photo by David Hablützel

Clearly defined roles for every bee

Every bee hive contains three different types of adult bees, each with its own dedicated function:

The queen, drones and worker bees are acutely aware of their individual tasks and responsibilities. 

Through effective communication and hard-wired genetics, honey bees have established a clear hierarchical structure which allows them to operate at maximum efficiency.


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2. Wolves: a contrarian approach to leadership

Wolves are natural-born predators, but the animals they hunt, polar bears, elk, moose, bison, etc., are much larger than they are.

In order to successfully take down these strong animals, wolves must rely on their superior collaborative abilities.

But, while their team-hunting skills are undoubtedly impressive, the most interesting thing about them is the way they approach leadership.

Photo by Patrice Schoefolt

Leading from behind

Perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn from the wolves is their approach to leadership. Wolf leaders, otherwise known as “alphas”, have a very unique way of organising their team.

Instead of guiding the pack from the front, as you might expect, alpha wolves follow up from behind. 

Why?

Because by trailing at the back, wolf leaders can ensure the young, elderly and infirm members of the team don’t get left behind and become vulnerable to attack.

Role delegation and vocational agility

Contrary to popular belief, alpha wolves are not always the biggest and strongest pack members. Alpha wolves achieve their status simply by mating and rearing pups.

They’re essentially parents.

Therefore, their role is not to jostle for the “top-dog” position, but simply to identify the strongest and weakest members of the pack and delegate responsibilities accordingly.


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3. Dolphins: a masterclass in communication

Dolphins live and travel in groups known as ‘pods’, which typically consist of about 5-20 members. Sometimes, multiple pods can come together to form ‘herds’ of up to 1,000 dolphins.

Dolphins use teamwork to corral and catch their prey: shoals of smaller fish such as mackerel and herring.

Without their ability to communicate, strategise and organise, dolphins would be easily outmanoeuvred by their faster, more agile prey.

Photo by Daniel Torobekov

Many hands make light work

Dolphins depend on one another to hunt and survive. Without the assistance of their fellow huntsmen, dolphins would never be able to catch a meal.

But when dolphins hunt together, their individual strengths are amplified. 

With a common goal in mind, they’re able to stalk their prey, back it into a corner and take turns swimming through the bait ball.

Everyone has a chance to shine

Unlike honey bees, dolphins share equal responsibility in their roles. Once the prey has been corralled, each dolphin takes a chance at swimming through the bait in the hopes of catching a fish.

You can mirror this concept in your team meetings. 

Instead of allowing the same old manager or CEO to jabber on time and again, offer the floor to other colleagues and give them a chance to contribute to the discussion.

Who knows what ideas and insights you’ll uncover?


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Drawbacks

4. Orcas: knowledge is power

Orcas, otherwise known as “killer whales”, are some of the most powerful, dominant and intelligent creatures on the planet.

They typically live in colder waters like Alaska, Norway and Antarctica, where they feed on large prey including sea lions, squids and seals.

Similarly to dolphins, they live in “pods” of up to 40 individuals. These are usually families, and they’re led by the eldest matriarch.

Photo by Ivan Stecko

Continually handing down information

Orcas learn how to survive in harsh environments by absorbing information from the eldest and most experienced members of the pod—the mothers and/or grandmothers.

With this continuous transfer of information, the leaders of the pod ensure that their group is set up for future success.

It also means that the Orcas and continually learning and developing their skills. 

Disregarding biological and environmental limitations

One of the most impressive things about Orcas is their ability to overcome natural barriers.

At first glance, it seems impossible that an Orca would be able to hunt and kill amphibious prey residing on land.

But they’ve devised an incredible—not to mention dangerous—strategy which makes this possible.

Working as a team, the Orcas create a wave of water which allows them to hunt seal pups from the shore.

It’s a huge risk, but it’s a creative strategy that broadens their horizons and maximises their chances of survival.


Learning through trial and error

The execution of such a complex plan requires accuracy and precision—something many of the younger Orcas are yet to possess.

Therefore, a successful hunt is usually preceded by numerous failed attempts.

But adult Orcas are forgiving, despite the fact a failed hunt could be fatal.

They understand the level of expertise required to pull off such a strategy. They are patient with the younger Orcas and understand the importance of on-the-job learning.

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Drawbacks

5. Spotted hyenas: an unexpected genius

They may not seem like it, but spotted hyenas are some of the fastest problem-solvers in the animal kingdom.

This came as a surprise to researchers who, given the hyena’s comparatively small brain size, hadn’t anticipated their intelligence to be noteworthy.

Compared to animals with larger brains such as elephants and chimpanzees, hyenas remain cognitively limited. Yet, they have a unique ability to rally around a problem and find solutions as a team.

Photo by Antonio Friedemann

Cooperating to solve problems

A study conducted by Christine Drea and co-author Allisa N. Carter at the University of Berkeley tested the problem-solving capabilities of hyenas by confronting them with a series of food-reward tasks.

The test was simple: numerous pairs of spotted hyenas were led into a pen where they were confronted with two identical platforms 10 feet above the ground. Two ropes dangled from each platform which, when pulled downwards in unison, would release a tasty meal of bone chips and a sticky meatball.

Intelligent beings such as chimpanzees would require extensive training before comprehending such a task.

But spotted hyenas? Some figured it out in less than two minutes.

The more experience a hyena had with the experiment, the less often he/she would pull down the rope without its partner. Instead, the experienced hyenas would quickly teach their inexperienced partner what they needed to do.

Interestingly, pairs consisting of hyenas from opposing ends of the hierarchical ladder were the quickest to crack the problem.

Pairs of dominant females, however, would engage in a power struggle which prevented them from solving the task quickly.


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Drawbacks

6. Ants: punching above their weight

These are tiny insects that live in huge colonies of up to 10 million ants. These enormous teams consist of a queen (sometimes more than one), female workers and male ants known as drones.

Similarly to a hive of honey bees, every ant plays a vital role in the survival of the colony.

Queens cannot hunt, so they have female worker ants to do this for them. Worker ants cannot reproduce, so they need a queen. 

And the males? They play an important job in scouting out new locations to start a colony.

Photo by Petr Ganaj

Size doesn’t matter

Ants are well-known for their ability to carry objects much larger than themselves. In fact, a single ant is capable of lifting up to 20x its own body weight.

That’s like you lifting an entire giraffe above your head.

But despite their immense strength, ants still rely on each other to transport food back to the nest.

When a worker ant encounters a nutritious meal, she will carry a piece of it back to the colony, leaving a potent scent trail in her wake.

Once she’s alerted her fellow workers, more ants follow the scent trail and set about transporting the food source back to the nest in preparation for winter.

Overcoming obstacles together

Ants are capable of communicating complex strategies with just 10 to 20 signals.

Army ants are even capable of building bridges with their bodies when they encounter a gap that must be crossed.

The lead ant stops when it encounters the gap, and the other ants commence building a bridge with their bodies until the gap is closed.


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Drawbacks

7. Elephants: surviving in the wild

Elephants are among the world's smartest animals and they exhibit phenomenal loyalty and teamwork.

Their brains are very large which gives them high intelligence and impressive memories. In fact, their strong memory is a key component to their survival.

Photo by Frans van Heerden

Continuous learning and development

Elephant groups, known as ‘herds’, are led by matriarchs—the eldest female figures. These wise creatures rely on their knowledge and experience to survive in dangerous habitats.

In order to ensure the long-term survival of the herd, the matriarchal leaders continually teach the younger members.

This involves teaching them which foods are safe to eat, where to find water, what constitutes a safe shelter, which predators are most dangerous and much more.

These teachings last for many years and will continue until the eldest herd member dies. At this point, the command is handed over to the next in line.

Care and affection

Elephants are known for their finely tuned social capabilities. They have many ways of expressing emotion, from loud “trumpeting” sounds to submissive “squeals”.

Social bonding is a huge part of life within the herd. Females typically seek the companionship of other females and gravitate towards one another, whereas male elephants are more solitary.

You’ll often see elephants displaying affection for one another by patting heads of intertwining trunks.


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Drawbacks

8. Beavers: a family of engineers

Beavers are the largest rodents in North America. They live in damp areas such as rivers, swamps and marshes, surviving on scavenged resources such as berries, fruits and the bark of trees.

They live together in groups known as ‘colonies’ and work together to find food and build shelters.

Their unique ability to construct lodges and dams from twigs, sticks and rocks has earned them the title of “ecological engineers”.

Photo by Justin Smith

Watching and learning

Beaver kids learn how to survive in the wild by following their elders and mimicking their practices.

As they shadow the older members of the colony, they’ll learn vital skills such as how to construct lodges and dams and how to preserve food. 

Adapting to the environment

Beavers live in harsh environments that are constantly changing.

In order to survive, they work together to continually adapt and improve their shelters. Without these shelters, the beavers would be totally exposed to predators and the elements.


Key takeaways

Strengthen your team with a team-building retreat

The easiest way to improve teamwork skills is by organising a team-building retreat. With a tailor-made experience, you can escape the office and target the aspects of your team that need the most work.

Surf Office makes organising a team-building retreat cost-effective and hassle-free by handling all the tricky stuff. That includes finding accommodation, creating a schedule, arranging transfers, contacting local vendors and much more. 

This means you can focus on your workload while we organise a fully customised offsite retreat for your team.

If you’re ready to unlock new levels of engagement in your team, reach out to one of our specialist retreat planners today.

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