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In studies of social animals, the highest ranking individual is sometimes designated as the alpha. Males, females, or both, can be alphas, depending on the species. Where one male and one female fulfill this role together, they are sometimes referred to as the alpha pair. Other animals in the same social group may exhibit deference or other species-specific subordinate behaviours towards the alpha or alphas.

Male "silverback" gorillas are usually the alpha animal and may receive preferential treatment such as being groomed by other group members

In studies of social animals, the highest ranking individual is sometimes designated as the alpha. Males, females, or both, can be alphas, depending on the species. Where one male and one female fulfill this role together, they are sometimes referred to as the alpha pair. Other animals in the same social group may exhibit deference or other species-specific subordinate behaviours towards the alpha or alphas.

Alpha animals usually gain preferential access to food and other desirable items or activities, though the extent of this varies widely between species. Male or female alphas may gain preferential access to sex or mates; in some species, only alphas or an alpha pair reproduce.

Alphas may achieve their status by superior physical strength and aggression, or through social efforts and building alliances within the group.

The individual with alpha status sometimes changes, often through a fight between the dominant and a subordinate animal. Such fights may or may not be to the death, depending on the animal.