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How the Wolf Pack works

HOWLColorado : Wolf FactsWolves have a complex social system which controls how the pack works. This article discusses the basic facts related to wolf pack construction

There are many things assumed about wolf packs, some are true, some are not.

Assumption one: There are dominant, or Alpha, wolves

True. Typically a wolf pack will have a dominant male wolf, and a favored female wolf. The pairing is referred to as the Alpha pair. Generally, only the Alpha pairing is permitted to breed.

There are levels of subordinates below the Alpha pairing. In large packs, a secondary level is introduced. This second-in-command rank of wolf is known as the Beta. The Beta wolves are occasionally allowed to breed.

Other ranking in the social ladder does appear to exist, and seems quite a fluid situation prone to much adjustment as wolves look to establish themselves in the pack hierarchy.

There is also the Omega wolf. Literally, the last wolf. The Omega is often young, and is the nanny to pups when the other wolves leave the den. They eat last, and are generally “encouraged” to leave the pack through constant torment.

A study* observed a difference between captive and wild wolves and suggests that the hierarchy is not as rigid as some previously believed. The study revealed that a pack behaves more like a family. The male wolf, and his selected mate, strong enough to become the breeding pair would take on a parental, or “Alpha” status, and all other wolves would adjust their social position to best serve the needs of the pack. Subordinate females would care for the pups and defend the den, while the males would acquire the food.

It also appears that the social dominance is reflected in free will. The higher the rank, the more ability is given to the wolf to do what they want. The subordinate wolves generally follow the lead.

Physical displays of dominance seem to happen only when food is involved. This can be through the enforcement of rank between similarly ranked wolves as they establish their priority when feeding. It can also be through shows of submission as lower ranked wolves beg for food from a dominent wolf. A behavior not lost on dog owners who face the puppy-dog eyes of a hungry, onlooking pet.

Alphas can be challenged. Ousted Alpha wolves often leave the pack. 

Assumption two: Wolf packs include lots of wolves

Wolf packs are generally made up of fewer than 10 wolves. Some get to be over 20, and a large region may be home to multiple packs, giving the impression of a larger pack.  However, Wolves are territorial, and while there can be overlap towards the edges of a wolf pack’s territory, that range can be quite large and the number of animals is quite small.

Assumption three: There are a number of lone wolves

Probably not.

Wolves don’t like being alone, with a few rare exceptions. They survive better as a group, hunt better as a group and are, generally speaking, social animals.

Most lone wolves are usually a wolf in search of a new pack. Omegas and Alphas can be forced to leave their current pack, for various reasons, and it is this migration of oustered wolves which gives nature the ability to avoid too much interbreeding.

As the previous cited study demonstrates, it is the breeding pair which determines alpha status. Therefore an Omega from one pack and an former Alpha from another can meet as lone wolves and start their own pack, and the hierarchy is reset. They breed, mixing bloodlines, and a healthier future for the wolf is ensured. Wolves are not born predisposed to a specific role in life.

Assumption four: Wolves mate for life

If given the chance, yes, wolves prefer to mate for life. However, they are willing not to if the need arises.

The death of an Alpha female, while mourned by both mate and pack, does not spell the end for the pack as the Alpha male will generally select a new mate. By definition, she would be promoted to Alpha by virtue of being able to breed.

There may be other occasions where a wolf may not mate for life.


* Mech, L. David.  1999.  Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor
     in wolf packs.  Canadian Journal of Zoology 77:1196-1203.
     Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.
     (Version 16MAY2000).

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