Wolf Pack Hierarchy

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WQ Project Coordinator
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Wolf Pack Hierarchy

Post by WQ Project Coordinator » Thu Oct 04, 2007 1:19 pm

Let’s talk about pack hierarchy.

If you don’t want to read a lot, here is the gist of this message. In WolfQuest, the only pack members that will be distinguished in any way are the dominant wolves, also known as the breeding pair. Studies have shown that wild packs are family groups with the parents being the leaders. In the 1970’s, wolves were just beginning to be studied and they didn’t know that the packs were family based and so they assigned names to them. Since then scientists have learned a lot about wolves and their social structure. The top wolf biologists today don’t use those assigned names.

Okay for those of you that want to read more on this topic and want to learn more about pack hierarchy, here you go.

First of all, let me introduce to you one of the world’s top wolf biologist. Here is a brief biography of L. David Mech from Wikipedia.
L. David "Dave" Mech is an internationally recognized wolf expert, a senior research scientist for the U.S. Department of the Interior (since 1970), and an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. He has researched wolves since 1958 in places such as Minnesota, Canada, Italy, Alaska, Yellowstone National Park, and on Isle Royale.

Mech is the founder of the International Wolf Center and sits on its Board of Directors as Vice Chair. The project to create the facility, which he started in 1985, was a natural outgrowth of his wolf research as well as his ambition to educate people about the nature of wolves that they may come to respect the creature through understanding.

He has published ten books and numerous articles about wolves and other wildlife, the most famous of these being his books The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species (1970, University of Minnesota Press) and Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation which he co-edited with Luigi Boitani (2003, University of Chicago Press).
You should also know that Dr. Mech is on our advisory team for WolfQuest. He lives in Twin Cities, Minnesota. I have personally interacted with him.

The reason I am introducing him to you is because he is the one that started the use of the term alpha wolf in the 1970’s. As many of you know, wolves are elusive and hard to study. At that time, scientists learned what they could from wild wolves and relied heavily upon captive wolf populations. As many of you also know, captive animals can act differently than wild animals. In the wild, scientists observed that there was a hierarchy to wolf packs. They assigned descending Greek letters to the positions in the pack to used to describe the pack members.

Since the 1970’s, much wolf research has been done. A couple of key places for wolf research in the past 20 years have been Yellowstone National Park in USA and Ellesmere Island in Canada. The reintroduction of Yellowstone wolves has provided researchers with open areas to observe wolves and a population in which they knew every wolf and where it came from and its lineage. On Ellesmere Island, the landscape is wide open and the wolves have had such little contact with humans that it didn’t disturb them that they were being observed. The research from these places and many others showed that wolf packs are family groups, not unrelated wolves. Just like in many family groups, including humans, the parents are in charge.

In 2000, Dr. Mech wrote an article about how the views of pack hierarchy have changed. You can find that article here (copy and paste into your browser):
http://www.mnforsustain.org/wolf_mech_d ... status.htm

If you don’t want to read the whole thing, here are a few highlight quotes:
In captive packs, the unacquainted wolves formed dominance hierarchies featuring alpha, beta, omega animals, etc. With such assemblages, these dominance labels were probably appropriate, for most species thrown together in captivity would usually so arrange themselves.

In nature, however, the wolf pack is not such an assemblage. Rather, it is usually a family (Murie 1944; Young and Goldman 1944; Mech 1970, 1988; Clark 1971; Haber 1977) including a breeding pair and their offspring of the previous 1-3 years, or sometimes two or three such families (Murie 1944; Haber 1977; Mech et al. 1998).
Labeling a high-ranking wolf alpha emphasizes its rank in a dominance hierarchy. However, in natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none.

Thus, calling a wolf an alpha is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or a doe deer as an alpha. Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so "alpha" adds no information. Why not refer to an alpha female as the female parent, the breeding female, the matriarch, or simply the mother? Such a designation emphasizes not the animal's dominant status, which is trivial information, but its role as pack progenitor, which is critical information.

The one use we may still want to reserve for "alpha" is in the relatively few large wolf packs comprised of multiple litters.
Although the genetic relationships of the mothers in such packs remain unknown, probably the mothers include the original matriarch and one or more daughters, and the fathers are probably the patriarch and unrelated adoptees (Mech et al. 1998). In such cases the older breeders are probably dominant to the younger breeders and perhaps can more appropriately be called the alphas. Evidence for such a contention would be an older breeder consistently dominating food disposition or the travels of the pack.

The point here is not so much the terminology but what the terminology falsely implies: a rigid, force-based dominance hierarchy.
Similarly, pups are subordinate to both parents and to older siblings, yet they are fed preferentially by the parents, and even by their older (dominant) siblings (Mech et al. 1999). On the other hand, parents both dominate older offspring and restrict their food intake when food is scarce, feeding pups instead. Thus, the most practical effect of social dominance is to allow the dominant individual the choice of to whom to allot food.
The typical wolf pack, then, should be viewed as a family with the adult parents guiding the activities of the group and sharing group leadership in a division-of-labor system in which the female predominates primarily in such activities as pup care and defense and the male primarily during foraging and food-provisioning and the travels associated with them.

Dominance displays are uncommon except during competition for food. Then they allow parents to monopolize food and allocate it to their youngest offspring.
I met Dr. Mech in January 2007. He was passionate about not using the hierarchy names and instead referring to wolf packs as family groups. In fact, he even wished he had never published it because people are not changing their viewpoint on wolf packs. If anyone knows about wolves, it is him.

One of the goals of this forum is to help educate people about wolves. This is one of area we (WolfQuest team) hope you learn. Remember that science is all about asking questions. The answers are not necessarily the end, but a starting point for further examination. That is one of the wonderful things about science.

If you want to discuss this, head over to the General Wolf Discussion forum.
Last edited by paperpaws on Tue Apr 11, 2017 9:48 pm, edited 5 times in total.
Reason: fixing some spelling errors
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