10 examples of ‘peer-led’ behaviours in nature

When and where do organisms practice peer-to-peer and cooperative behaviours, and what can we learn?

Zahra Davidson
16 min readJul 18, 2021


Note: this is an updated version of my original post containing 7 examples. If you know of any others, please let me know, I’d like to keep growing this collection.

Lately I’ve been thinking of ‘wisdom’ as ‘sustainable intelligence’. Aka, intelligence that can be sustained on this earth, within planetary boundaries. Intelligence that does not lead itself to its own destruction.

With this definition, the wisdom of the natural world shines brighter than the wisdom of humans — despite the very big brains we carry around.

Intelligence could be considered sexier than wisdom. It builds huge, phallic towers out of metal and glass. It blasts rockets into space. So I’m training my eye to look for lower status intelligence, that doesn’t boast or blow its own trumpet.

Here’s what I’ve been looking for lately: examples of peer-to-peer and cooperative behaviours from the natural world — and they’re too fascinating not to share. I started collecting these in autumn 2021, to feed some of the examples into Enrol Yourself’s twice annual Huddlecraft 101 training. The training is for learning, community, culture and change professionals who want to apply peer-led approaches to their challenges and initiatives.

Of course there are plenty of examples of ruthless competition in nature. And if we’re serious about learning from the wisdom of the natural world we can’t ignore that truth. What I am not saying is that we should only learn from examples of cooperation. However it seems that the dominant story of evolution is all about competition and natural selection. And as people understand more about the natural world, we can see how this story is only part of the truth.

So, I see value in digging for the examples that can tell us more about the whole and I’ve gathered this collection of peer-led behaviours to learn from. Enjoy!

1. Euphrates Poplar trees survive in the desert through mutual support

What’s the behaviour?

The Euphrates Poplar tree is able to grow in the huge Taklamakan Desert in China (the drought centre of the Eurasian continent), and can survive there for more than 1000 years. The secret of their survival is buried beneath the sand. They survive as clones, and they connect their roots under the sand, creating a huge root network. When one tree finds water, it can share with its neighbours, making best use of once-a-year melt water from the Himalayas.

Poplar trees date from the Tertiary and, therefore, have been regarded as living fossils of ancient species by botanists. They bear genes that endow them with the adaptation to withstand chilling winters and broiling summers, aridity and water logging, saline-alkali concentrations. Thus, these ancient rare trees, which possess great resilience, can be regarded as an invaluable natural gene pool.


🤔 What do I take away?

It is impossible not to think of the underground root system as a metaphor for the invisible relationships we form as people, that can serve us in time of struggle or scarcity. But, I also notice how — as I write this — I refer to the tree itself as the individual unit, rather than to the collective of trees. I perceive the tree as an individual organism, even though it is physically joined to its neighbours, and despite the fact that one individual would not survive alone. It seems almost absurd that I would still interpret the individual tree as primary. Of course I am doing this because of the limitations of my human perception and the conditioning of my life experience, but it’s interesting to think about what could be unlocked if we were already to give more primacy to the group as a unit, in the way that we perceive the world. When are we perceiving individuals that are not actually individuals after all?

2. Booby birds and Cardones cacti form a strange and symbiotic friendship

What’s the behaviour?

Isla San Pedro Martir (or Booby Island), in the Gulf of Mexico, is hugely inhospitable. Huge numbers of birds next there, fishing in order to feed. They drop so much guano (💩) that the island is painted white. For almost all plants their guano is utterly poisonous, and they aren’t able to grow. However one plant’s rubbish is another plant’s riches. The Cardones cactus is not poisoned by the ammonia in the guano, but uses the nutrients it contains to fuel its growth. This friendship is so successful that the island is covered in the world’s greatest forest of cacti.

Not only is the cardone not poisoned by the ammonia, but the birds nest in its shade, the chicks squirting their guano at the base of the cactus, from where the cactus can use the nutrients it contains.


🤔 What do I take away?

This example of symbiosis makes me wonder what partnerships we miss out on because, in one way or another, we find them a bit socially unacceptable, not to our taste, or even gross? If there is a mutual value exchange does it actually matter if our goals do not align? The Booby and the Cactus do not need to share the same goal in order to form an allegiance. We spend so much time judging, and defending our honour and reputation. Maybe we shut down opportunities for emergent possibility. I wonder whether it could be fruitful to map 5–10 organisations that we assume we should never work with at Enrol Yourself, and then come up with ideas for how we could form partnerships. At the very least it could be a good thinking workout. Or, it could generate some possibilities that judgement would usually shut down.

3. Lichens are remarkable examples of innovation arising from partnership

What’s the behaviour?

It was long assumed that lichens were single organisms. However, it turns out that this is not the case. Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener published a paper describing how lichens are actually composed of two quite different entities: a fungus and an alga. He proposed that the fungus offered physical protection and acquired nutrients for itself and for the algal cells, whereas the alga harvested light and carbon dioxide to make sugars that provide energy. Together they grow into the visible body of the lichen, which is more than the sum of its parts, allowing both of them to survive and thrive in places where they couldn’t survive on their own.

Lichens show how branches of the tree of life that had been diverging for hundreds of millions of years can defy our expectations and converge. The implication is that a ‘whole suite of abilities can be acquired in a flash, in evolutionary terms, ready-evolved, from organisms that are not one’s parents, nor one’s species, kingdom or even domain’.

Lichens are living riddles. Since the nineteenth century, they have provoked fierce debate about what constitutes an autonomous individual. The closer we get to lichens, the stranger they seem. To this day, lichens confuse our concept of identity and force us to question where one organism stops and another begins.


🤔 What do I take away?

I like the idea of trying to spot the places where the abilities we need are already ready-evolved in the natural world, in another species. How might we collaborate to acquire that ability instantly, or almost instantly? Many species that live on this planet have survived and sustained themselves for far, far longer than we have. What are they doing that has enabled their longevity and sustainability? How can we mirror them in our thoughts and actions? How can we collaborate with them to give us access to what they have in abundance? How can we hack the slow process of evolution by converging?

4. Dolphins use peer‑to‑Peer learning to
spread innovations rapidly

What’s the behaviour?

‘Shelling’ is a new foraging technique that dolphins use to catch fish. The dolphin chases the fish into a shell, carries the shell up to the surface, then tips the fish into their mouth. Research showed that 57% of dolphins were learning this particular technique from their peers, not from Mum or from other adults. This was different to other tool use, which tended to be passed down from generation to generation.

As our planet experiences more and more rapid environmental change, humans may need to take one from the dolphins, encouraging innovation and knowledge sharing both between and within generations. Wisdom passed from parent to child is crucial for an individual’s survival, but when new ideas can also be introduced and spread from peer to peer, a population’s resilience will increase exponentially.


🤔 What do I take away?

In order for a dolphin to learn something new from their peer, they need to play with a dolphin that knows something they don’t, or that was taught something different by its parents. Friends are wonderful, but peers are a different category of relationship. Sometimes our friends share so much in common with us, or they’ve known us for so long, that the potential for the kind of peer exchange that might lead to greater resilience is minimal. Peers need to be different, and crucially they need to feel comfortable to visibly display and externalise that difference, so that it can be exchanged.

The dolphins also make me think about how, when I talk about Enrol Yourself, people often assume that our focus on peer-led approaches means we disagree with teacher-student learning. Not the case. We only disagree with teacher-student dynamics being the default in every setting. This behaviour also highlights the power of multiple methods of learning in tandem.

5. Meerkats manage conflict by taking turns to lead

What’s the behaviour?

Meerkats often disagree about which direction they should head in to find food. They stick together as a group, presumably for safety, despite having different needs and knowledge. For example, lactating females need different nutrients, and individuals may know of food sources in totally different directions. The meerkats head off after the first meerkat who makes a decision and chooses a direction. Their speedy decision making indicates that they have strong motivation and knowledge. But interestingly, the leader changes day to day, so quick decision making is not simply a trait of one, decisive animal. Taking turns resolves potential conflicts whilst preventing biased decision making that would exclude the needs of some members of the group.

Disagreements are a normal part of life, not just for humans, but for many other species. How other species manage to resolve disagreements can be helpful for humans to understand, generating insight into other species and helping our own species see other options for fostering coordination and cohesion.


🤔 What do I take away?

I’m an advocate for turn taking. This has been part of the Learning Marathon since we piloted the idea, with each peer group participant taking a turn to lead a fortnightly meetup. It not only prevents conflict, it also prevents competition for airtime and encourages quieter voices to speak up, therefore leading to a richer exchange of ideas. It makes everyone accountable and responsible for a meaningful and necessary part of the process. I’ve long been wondering about all the other places where this mechanism could be applied. Could we use this more within our team? So that responsibility for organising and leading some aspects of our work rotated rather than always being held by the same person? And how could we do this whilst still acknowledging that some people are ‘better’ at some tasks than others?

6. Hermit crabs find new homes through social networking behaviours

What’s the behaviour?

Hermit crabs face a challenge because their shell does not grow as they grow. When they become too large for their home, they must find a new one, and the market is competitive. Sometimes they’re lucky and they stumble upon an empty new shell of the right size. And sometimes they use a more complex and social ‘synchronous vacancy chain’ strategy for solving this problem, that saves them both time and energy.

In this system, when a hermit crab finds a shell that is too large for it, it simply waits there. Smaller hermit crabs line up behind the initial shell finder, in descending size order, waiting for the shells to be vacated, while the initial finder stops searching and instead waits for a larger hermit crab to switch into the new shell. In this way, shells are efficiently passed from individual to individual.


🤔 What do I take away?

The hermit crabs make me imagine an exercise that could feature as part of peer exchange sessions or skill-shares. It might look similar to the warm up where you line up ‘in order of the time you got up this morning’, with everyone speaking to each other to work out where they should fit in the line. The prompt could be ‘line up in terms of how proficient you are when it comes to collaboration’ or ‘line up in terms of the size of your intrinsic motivation’. With no objective scale, the discussions would have to be deeper and more collective for the group to meaningfully form an order. And in doing so valuable ideas and insights might be passed along the chain...

7. Circular competition among three strains of E. coli helps maintain a stable community

What’s the behaviour?

Very often, competition results in one species dominating and ultimately excluding another. One strategy is for a species to specialise in a way that reduces competition, for example by finding a different food source. Another strategy is the ‘rock-paper-scissors’ relationship which can prevent takeovers and exclusion. Scientists have found three strains of E. coli bacteria which compete, but surprisingly all remain alive over time in the same environment. This is because they each have superior and inferior qualities, and a superior and inferior competitor. This means that no single strain is superior to both of the others — in the same way that neither rock, paper or scissors are superior to both of the other two. So no strain of E. coli can win outright every time.

There are many ways in nature to cooperate rather than compete. Learning from the rock-paper-scissors strategy, we might want to try maintaining stable relationships with others who we usually think of as competitors. By using a ‘give-and-take’ strategy and not over-using resources, everyone in the relationship can prosper.


🤔 What do I take away?

Imagine a world where competing organisations took an approach like this? To prevent huge monopolies and concentration of wealth, but without totally removing competitive incentives? I’m interested in the balance of competition and cooperation in this example. Often material I read and narratives I listen to paint competition as bad and cooperation as good, but this example emphasises that neither are inherently good or bad, and both are better when balanced by the other. Its imbalance and homogeneity that is problematic in ecosystems. Healthy competition can be motivating and strengthening. Sometimes it can feel controversial at Enrol Yourself to propose competitive strategies, lest they be in conflict with our peer-to-peer approach. It feels helpful to have examples which show how both can coexist.

8. African wild dogs use a versatile voting system

What’s the behaviour?

Packs of African wild dogs are led by a dominant male and female. But despite this, decision-making has been found to be more democratic in some areas of pack behaviour. For example, the pack might need to decide whether or not to go out hunting. So they vote on it, by sneezing! A leading dog might sneeze first, and several more sneezes would probably sway the whole pack to go with their decision. But a non-dominant individual can also sneeze first, and as long as there is enough support from the rest of the pack, then they can influence or lead the decision making (they might just have to work a little bit harder to do it).

Some flexibility in decision-making processes can be useful. Even when a group has leaders, leaders may not always take action, or they may not understand what the rest of the group really needs or wants. Flexibility allows leaders to be overruled when enough other members of a group agree on a different course of action.


🤔 What do I take away?

It may not be a conscious process but the dogs harness more collective intelligence (or wisdom) this way than if they relied fully on their leaders to make decisions. It’s interesting that some decisions are made this way and some aren’t. Again, this makes me think about how we people often love binaries: ‘should decisions be made by leaders, or should they be made by the people?’. We often feel uncomfortable with dualities and grey areas. Perhaps the healthiest approach for organisations, communities and societies is to intentionally use lots of different methods for decision making, instead of choosing one, to balance the powers they each bring?

Also, leaders need to be willing to be overruled, at least in certain circumstances, in order for a process like this to work. If this capacity is absent, then there’s no hope. How can people practice being overruled so it feels like a natural part of leadership rather than a mark of weakness and a jab to the ego?

9. The relationship between clownfish and sea anemone allows both to flourish

What’s the behaviour?

Clownfish famously coexist with anemone. A select few species of anemone cooperate with Nemo and co to support one another’s survival. The anemone protects the fish from predators, and the clownfish frightens away other fish that would try to eat the anemone. They also exchange nutrients. Because the clownfish doesn’t try to eat the anemone, the nematocysts (stingers on the anemone’s tentacles) aren’t triggered. If the clownfish is accidentally stung, their mucus layer protects them. It is 3 or 4 times thicker than other fish, and sometimes the clownfish can take even more mucus from the anemone as well.

Studying the relationships between organisms that rely on one another reminds us that a single strategy isn’t always the most effective. Like nature, much of science relies on incremental discoveries that together lead to innovation. Each scientist shares information and data that can be used by others to advance their own research and add to the overall body of human knowledge.


🤔 What do I take away?

The formality of the relationship between anemone and clownfish interests me. They seem to have ‘exclusive rights’ to one another’s protection. I wonder what the equivalents might be for symbiotic human relationships, and how gently — or even firmly — formalising some of them, might become more and more important as volatility, precarity and anxiety rise in the coming years. This might mean handshake agreements, contracting process, or even legally recognised agreements. How can we be creative with how we encourage or incentivise mutual commitments and support?

10. Slime moulds can learn and share with other slime moulds by merging

What’s the behaviour?

Slime mould is a large-scale single-celled organism that likes damp forest environments. It moves by crawling across surfaces. It has no brain, which does not mean it cannot learn: it can change its behaviour based on past experience, and interestingly — it can share learning with a peer by physically fusing their bodies together for a while, forming a connecting structure, and passing information.

Scientists have shown this behaviour through an experiment where different slime moulds could move across bridges to find some food. Half of the slime moulds crossed a non-salt bridge, and the others crossed a salt bridge (salt is something they typically dislike). Those crossing the salt bridge were repelled to begin with, but eventually realised they would not be harmed and crossed to reach the food. After members of the two groups merged with one another, the slime moulds who had not yet overcome their fear of the salt bridge bypassed the longer learning process, and went straight over the repellent bridge to reach the food.

How slime moulds learn and share learning is still a mystery. Some scientists think it might be related to how genes are expressed, to the structure of the veins, or to how chemicals interact within the slime. But even though we don’t know how it works, this ability to learn without a brain offers valuable insights for innovation. Researchers have turned to slime mould for help solving difficult computational problems such as finding shortest paths and building better networks. And efforts to design artificial intelligence and machine learning systems can use the bright but brainless creature as inspiration for developing new approaches to learning — and sharing knowledge — without the need for a central hub.


🤔 What do I take away?

How can we work with this idea of ‘merging’ in order to promote learning or exchange? No physical merging of bodies of course, but I’ve often experienced and observed the powerful learning that comes simply from getting to know someone that you wouldn’t usually come into contact with, and ‘merging’ to the extent that you actually understand some of their dynamics, perspectives, opinions, triggers etc. It can be really hard to design informal, social ‘merging’ time into learning experiences, it often gets deprioritised. The client doesn’t think its needed, or there’s just too much content to get through. Or no one wants to spend a second longer than they need to on Zoom. There’s always a reason that feels solid. But next time there’s a move to deprioritise this open space, perhaps I’ll channel the slime mould and go against the grain.

  • Do you have any more examples of peer-led or cooperative behaviours from the natural world? I’d love to hear about them and add to this list. Drop me a line via zahra@enrolyourself.com
  • I’ve drawn the illustrations for this myself — because I’m trying to spend more time thinking and making with my hands.
  • If you want to foster more peer-led and cooperative behaviours in your project, organisation, community, network or ecosystem, have a look at Huddlecraft 101, a 3-day training happening in May 2022.
  • Links throughout, but another credit to asknature.org for being such a brilliant collection to root through.