Fierce Females of the Species

Female harpy eagle with white and gray feathers looking to the left
Female harpy eagle. Photo by Lori Conley.

When it comes to size, strength, cunning, and leadership, the females have it in some exceptional species. For these females, out-weighing and out-witting are the rule, both on the hunt and at home.

Across the animal kingdom, females sometimes outsize their male counterparts, and the L.A. Zoo is home to several of these bigger beasts. Our birds, in particular, feature many species with females reaching greater size than males. Eagles, such as our bald eagle, Steller’s sea eagle, harpy eagle, and bateleur eagle, often see this growth pattern. Our great horned owl and Eurasian eagle-owl fall into this category as well. Harris’ and red-tailed hawks, peregrine and lanner falcons, and the southern cassowary and laughing kookaburra of Australia all produce females of greater size, as do salmon-crested cockatoos of Malaysia. But birds aren’t alone in this phenomenon. Australian red-eyed tree frog and magnificent tree frog females, Fly River turtle females, and green tree python females all grow larger than the opposite sex.

And size does matter, as when, in some of our Zoo species, the female takes on the role of hunter. Harris’ hawks hunt in groups of up to seven birds led by a mature female. Our poison frog females are hunt leaders as well.

When it comes to mating, laying eggs, and rearing, several of our female animals let their male counterparts take the lead. Poison frog females leave males with the eggs while they hunt. Harris’ hawk and southern cassowary females take it a few steps further: they lay eggs but leave them to partner with additional males, while males then incubate and raise the chicks alone. And, one of our L.A. Zoo species’ females work together without males to prepare for laying their eggs; Fly River turtles travel in an all-female group and decide amongst themselves the safest location to dig their nests. 

Speaking of nests, black-headed weaver females are in charge when it comes to creating the spaces where their chicks will hatch. They supervise and approve nest building while males do the labor.

Elephants are also known to rely on female leadership. Herds of adult females and their male and female offspring are led by matriarchs. These female elders call the shots about when to travel for water and where to find it, who gets to be in the group at any given time, and how to strategize against threats.

Next time you visit the Zoo, keep an eye out for these phenomenal females!

Author: Autumn Hilden