Despite what we are told on all sides, wolf packs do not have a female and an alpha male. The researcher who coined the term tried to clarify what happened many years ago, but due to popular culture, the confusion still persists.
Although most people believe that a wolf pack follows a strict hierarchy, with an alpha female and male at the top, a beta pair acting as deputies, and even an omega pair who could be called the victim of the pack, the reality is much more family oriented.
Most wild wolf packs consist of the two parents and their offspring; this may also include older cubs that have not yet left their natal pack.
The term “alpha male” is outdated
Adult wolves are responsible for the pack simply because they are the parents of the others. The term alpha is outdated and implies that there would be some kind of struggle to be the leader, which is not true. Most wolves that lead packs are simply those that have bred and had cubs.
In some packs that contain more than one breeding wolf, the term “dominant daughter” or the term “subordinate breeder” is used, it says IFL Science.
“Just because wolf packs are a family unit doesn’t mean there isn’t fierce competition between individuals in the pack from time to time,” said Voyageurs Wolf Project leader Thomas Gable.
“For a time, there was a lot of emphasis on the hierarchy within a pack, which has been replaced to some extent by the idea that packs are mostly family units. But I think it’s easy to overdo it and think of wolf packs as a happy family where all members get along,” he added.
“Certainly that can sometimes be the case, but there is also fierce competition for resources between pack members, and wolves often leave their packs, presumably because of competition for food or other resources,” Gable explained.
What does research show about wolf behavior?
The practice of using the term “alpha male” began because of research into the behavior of wolves in captivity. It is important to note that wolves behave very differently in captivity, often kept in smaller enclosures with unrelated individuals, than in the wild in naturally formed family packs.
Rudolf Schenkel, a researcher of animal behavior, wrote about captive wolves in 1947 at Basel Zoo in Switzerland, where 10 wolves were kept in a 10 x 20 meter space. He saw that the highest-ranking male and female formed a pair and that the hierarchy could change.
He also noted that in wild wolf packs it was possible for parents and the offspring of those parents to make up the pack, but this information was overlooked at the time. Schenkel’s work gave rise to the term “alpha wolf.”
“By controlling and continuously suppressing all kinds of competition within the same sex, both ‘alpha animals’ defend their social position,” Schenkel wrote.
The mating order
Before Schenkel, there was a Norwegian zoologist in the 1920s named Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, who wrote about mating order to chickens. This idea became very popular and had a great influence on popular science at the time.
The original expression was thought to be “alpha hen”, not “alpha male”, referring to the most dominant hen (female) in the group. Hens have a mating order, but roosters are not part of these groups, and the term alpha male does not apply in this scenario.
More research was done on wolves in the 1960s and 1970s, but again, almost exclusively on wolves in captivity. Dr. L. David Mech, a wolf researcher, wrote a book titled “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species” published in 1970.
The book was a success and helped popularize the alpha concept. However, Mech has since said that the information included in the book is outdated, including the idea of a dominant wolf.
In packs there is no alpha male and no fights to get to that position
By 1999, Mech had published much more research on wolves in which he attempted to correct the misunderstanding surrounding the social hierarchy of wolves. He spent many summers studying wild wolves on Canada’s Ellesmere Island, where the pack had begun to acclimate to his presence, allowing him to study them from a short distance.
He wrote and published that the alpha pair were simply the parents of the rest of the pack. Although the younger wolves were submissive to their parents, there were some struggles for dominance.
“In natural wolf packs, the alpha male and female are only the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance battles with other wolves are rare, if any,” said Mech, who is the founder of the International Wolf Centre.
“During the 13 summers I observed the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none,” he wrote in an article titled “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs.”
How is a wolf pack formed?
In the wild, young wolves break away from the pack to find mates of the opposite sex with which to breed and form new packs. New research from Yellowstone suggests that Toxoplasma gondii (the parasite responsible for toxoplasmosis) could have a role in the dispersal process.
Once formed, wolf pairs are highly monogamous, and one wolf usually does not change mates unless the other dies. The male and female dominate the pack and decide who eats first simply because they are the parents of the rest of the group. There are almost no fights between the offspring of wild males and their fathers for the status of the alpha male.
“Most wolf pairings involve lone wolves only meeting potential mates. I am not aware of situations where two or more males are fighting for access, although this is a very difficult situation to observe in the wild,” Mech said.
So here’s the truth: Wolves don’t fight for pack leadership. A wolf looks for a mate and starts his own pack. The term “alpha male” is a misunderstanding that persists to this day.