The idea of the dominant “alpha wolf” at the top of a wolf pack’s hierarchy has long been entrenched in our understanding of the social dynamics of wolves in the wild. But the notion of alpha males in wolf packs came from observations of wolves in captivity. Observations of wolves in their natural habitat in the wild have revealed a different social structure altogether. A new article in Scientific American suggests that contrary to previous assumptions about wolves’ social hierarchies, wolf packs in the wild are predominantly familial. And rather than engaging in frequent dominance battles, wild wolf pack behavior is characterized by cooperation and mutual care. This evolving understanding of wolf pack behavior has significant implications for our understanding of animal societies and highlights the importance of questioning the assumptions we make about animals in the wild based on observations in captivity.
Alpha Males in Wolf Packs: History of an Error
In the 1940s, Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel published a paper called “Expressions Studies on Wolves,” based upon his observations of wolves in captivity. This paper first introduced the idea that wolf packs in the wild are a collection of individual wolves seeking dominance within the pack, but ultimately held in check by a pair of alpha wolves: an alpha male and alpha female who won their place at the top of the wolf pack’s hierarchy by fighting for dominance.
The concept of alpha wolves was further cemented and popularized in both scientific and public understanding with the 1970 publication of the book The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species by Dr. L. David Mech.
But one of the loudest critics of Mech’s book in the years since its publication has been Mech himself. Dr. Mech is currently a Senior Research Scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey (Biological Resources Division), an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota, and the founder of the International Wolf Center. And for decades, Mech has been working to dispel the ideas about alpha wolves that his book (which is, according to the author, “currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it”) helped popularize.
The myth of the alpha wolf has become so ingrained in the scientific and public imagination, however, that dispelling it has proven difficult. Difficult, but not impossible.
Do Alpha Males Exist in Wolf Packs?
The idea of wolf packs organized in hierarchies, with a dominant alpha or alpha pair at the top, was based upon observations of wolves in captivity. Captive wolf packs are usually composed of non-related adult wolves forced to live in a shared environment. Researchers observed a dominance hierarchy in these situations because, Mech explains, they were observing the “animal equivalent of what might happen in a human prison, [and] not the way wolves behave when they are left to their own devices.” In the wild, fighting for dominance within packs almost never occurs.
Wolf Packs in the Wild
Wolf packs in the wild behave nothing like their captive counterparts. In reality, wolf packs are simply families: usually a breeding male and female and their youngest offspring. Once their pups reach the age of two or three, they will set off on their own to find a mate and start their own familial pack.
In these family packs, the younger wolves defer to both the breeding male and the breeding female (much like human children typically defer to their parents). Younger wolf pups defer to their older siblings, but the pack also protects the youngest pups (prioritizing feeding them in times of food scarcity, for example). Countering the narrative of wolf packs led by aggressive, dominant alphas, struggles for dominance within wolf packs are rarely observed. In fact, even minor conflicts are unusual.
In the past several years, wildlife biologists have largely removed terms like “alpha wolf” or “alpha males” from their terminology and continue to work to help the public do the same. It’s a critical reminder to question assumptions made about animal behavior based largely upon the behavior of animals in captivity.
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