Nose to nose, the two males square up, snorting and scratching at the dirt beneath them. Animals may not go to war but they sure do fight. The reasons behind such behavior are usually to do with establishing and keeping territory or battling for dominance and the right to mate with females. Unlike carnivores, herbivores don’t have claws and sharp teeth to rip and shred their prey, but they certainly aren’t defenseless – as these shots of them facing off against each other show.
These two biting zebra stallions are likely fighting for dominance, with one challenging the other for the right to control the ‘harem’ – the term for the group of one male and several females and their foals formed among most zebra species. Bachelor males live together or on their own until ready to challenge a breeding stallion and so establish their own harem.
It is rare to think of herbivores fighting to the death but this can happen among these sub-Saharan antelope – notably fiercely competitive Ugandan kobs, when one male attempts to invade the territory of another. Kobs use their natural ‘head apparatus’ to good advantage, generally clashing and grappling using their horns, head-on. However, some will attack from behind or the side, and this can prove fatal.
There are two surviving species of bison, the European and the American. They fight in slightly different ways during the breeding season – when they are extremely aggressive and potentially dangerous. The European bison has horns that are pointed in such a way that they can interlock horns, while the American bison tend to fight by butting heads, as these two are doing.
7. White-tailed Deer
With their Bambi image, we may not often think of deer as fighting animals but males, called bucks, most certainly compete with each other over the right to mate with females – engaging in sparring behavior that establishes dominance hierarchies. Here we see three white-tailed bucks facing off in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, USA.
Bulls have a number of characteristics that enable them to defend their position of dominance, or challenge that of another male. Robust bones, a powerful neck and a bony head with ridges covering the eyes are key to their physiology. Here two males clash heads, with their noses to the ground.
These medium-sized, somewhat delicate-looking antelope locking horns in the dusty savanna are impalas, native to Africa. Only the males have the lyre-shaped horns, which can grow to up to 90 centimeters (35 in) long. Highly possessive, the males, known as rams, establish territories with groups of females that they defend against rivals, and they willingly fight one another during the rutting season.
When animals the size of rhinoceroses charge they can give each other quite a thump. Add the fact that they have horns into the mix and you have the makings of a formidable clash. Serious and sometimes dangerous fights break out among the males of some species during mating season, and the black rhino has the highest mortality rate resulting from such contests of any mammal.
The wildebeest is a migratory animal, meaning there are no clearly defined territories established over the months they spend on the move. Even so, male wildebeest will defend temporary territories while trying to attract females in heat. Here two of the powerful animals go head-to-head. The number of wildebeest in a herd is so large that during the rut there can be 300 small territories per square kilometer.
A member of the Oryx genus, gemsbok are beautiful antelopes with incredible horns 85 cm (33 in) long. The males use these weapons to defend their territory from rivals – as seen in this intense battle, which shows two of the animals with their horns locked together and the dust they’ve kicked up billowing around them.
Here, two elephants clash on a section of roadway in Africa. Male elephants spend a good deal of time timing battling one another for dominance, as only dominant males can expect to mate with females. Subordinate elephant bulls must bide their time, often waiting until they are at least 40 years of age. (Can you imagine if it were the same for humans?) While in general battles between males are more shows of aggression, during breeding season, when they come into musth, bulls will fight most other males they meet, and injuries can occur.
Both male and female kangaroos are known to clash over drinking spots but it is the males that engage in the drawn-out fighting rituals – often called boxing – sometimes in the presence of females in estrus. Such fights are so ritualized that they often begin with mutual grooming behavior before the battle commences. These ‘bouts’ are thought to establish hierarchies of dominance.