If you’ve ever heard the term “alpha wolf,” you might imagine snapping fangs and fights to the death for dominance. The idea that wolf packs are led by a merciless dictator is pervasive, lending itself to a shorthand for a kind of dominant masculinity.
But it turns out that this is a myth, and in recent years wildlife biologists have largely dropped the term “alpha.” In the wild, researchers have found that most wolf packs are simply families, led by a breeding pair, and bloody duels for supremacy are rare.
“What would be the value of calling a human father the alpha male?” says L. David Mech, a senior research scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey, who has studied wolf packs in the wild for decades. “He’s just the father of the family. And that’s exactly the way it is with wolves.”
Mech, like many wildlife biologists, once used terms such as alpha and beta to describe the pecking order in wolf packs. But now they are decades out of date, he says. This terminology arose from research done on captive wolf packs in the mid-20th century—but captive packs are nothing like wild ones, Mech says. When keeping wolves in captivity, humans typically throw together adult animals with no shared kinship. In these cases, a dominance hierarchy arises, Mech adds, but it’s the animal equivalent of what might happen in a human prison, not the way wolves behave when they are left to their own devices.
In contrast, wild wolf packs are usually made up of a breeding male, a breeding female and their offspring from the past two or three years that have not yet set out on their own—perhaps six to 10 individuals. In the late 1980s and 1990s Mech observed a pack every year at Ellesmere Island in northeastern Canada. His study, published in 1999 in the Canadian Journal of Zoology, was among the first multiyear research on a single pack over time. It revealed that all members of the pack defer to the breeding male and that all other pack members, regardless of sex or age, defer to the breeding female. The youngest pups also submit to their older siblings, though when food is scarce, parents feed the young first, much as human parents might tend to a fragile infant.
The same is true across gray wolf packs: Infighting for dominance is basically unheard of in a typical pack. When offspring are two to three years old, they leave the pack in search of mates, aiming to start their own pack. The alpha wolf notion of challenging dad for dominance of the existing pack just isn’t in the wolf playbook.
Indeed, even general family conflict is rare, Mech says. “Let’s say that [a] pair has some yearling wolves that haven’t dispersed yet. The adults will kind of keep the yearlings away from the carcass while the adults feed and feed the pups,” he says. “Those are places where there can be at least competition and sometimes conflict, but it’s a snap or two.”
Mech used the alpha wolf nomenclature in a classic book of wolf biology, The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, which was published in 1970. But he has made a point of pushing back against the term as new research has come to light. After a years-long effort, he finally got The Wolf taken out of print in 2022, he says. The 2003 book Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, which he co-edited with zoologist Luigi Boitani, is now far more accurate and up-to-date, he says.
On rare occasions wolf packs do balloon in size. This happens in Yellowstone National Park, where there are copious elk and multiple large wolf packs. Sometimes young wolves stay with their birth pack because there is enough food to go around and dispersing is dangerous. Any wolf ready to strike out on its own is at risk of attack by neighboring packs, says David Ausband, a wolf researcher and wildlife biologist at USGS and the University of Idaho. “When density is high, it’s a gauntlet,” he says. “It’s like, ‘I’ll just stay home. At least I’ll get some food.’”
In these situations, packs may grow to a couple of dozen members strong. The Druid Peak wolf pack in Yellowstone reached an apex of an unprecedented 37 wolves in 2001, according to the Yellowstone Wolf Tracker. When such an increase occurs in a pack, there may be more than one breeding pair, and competition can erupt over breeding spots, Ausband says. “In that case, I personally think the alpha term applies because there is still a dominant female calling the shots in that pack,” he says. “Usually the second breeding female is her daughter.” (In these circumstances, a subordinate male will also take on a breeding role, though sometimes one dominant male mates with multiple breeding females. Wolves rarely inbreed unless they are in small, isolated populations, so this arrangement is most likely if an unrelated female joins the pack.)
Having multiple breeding pairs in a pack is now an uncommon situation, says Ausband, who conducts genetic studies to understand how wolf packs are related and how they disperse. Prior to human hunting and trapping of the gray wolf population in the northern Rocky Mountains, perhaps 10 to 15 percent of wolf packs in the population had multiple breeders. Since the intermittent legalization of hunting and trapping of these wolves in states around Yellowstone in 2009, Ausband has found only one instance of such an arrangement in Idaho.
The status of gray wolves is often in flux. In 2008 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the northern Rocky Mountain population from the Endangered Species Act list. The agency reinstated this population to the list that same year but then delisted it, outside of wolves in Wyoming, in 2009, allowing hunting and trapping for the first time in decades. These wolves were reinstated in 2010 and then delisted again in 2011. Northern Rocky Mountain wolves in Wyoming were subsequently delisted in 2012, relisted in 2014 and delisted again in 2017. As of a February 2022 court order, all gray wolves in the continental U.S. and Mexico outside of the northern Rocky Mountain population are protected from hunting and trapping under the Endangered Species Act.
Hunting and trapping may also reshuffle wolf families, depending on which member of the pack is killed. Breeding males and females tend to be older and less susceptible to error in their survival instincts, so it’s usually younger wolves that lose their lives, Mech says. But if a breeding female or male is killed, a lone dispersing wolf may step in to take its place. On other occasions, a pack may adopt a lone wolf that does not become a breeder, says Sarah Bassing, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Idaho and the Idaho Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. This may happen when hunting and trapping cause a lot of wolf mortality, Bassing says, though the evidence isn’t entirely clear. If a wolf pack loses too many hunting adults, it may simply need the extra help. “Packs might be more receptive to new individuals just so their pups survive to the next year,” Bassing says. A spare nonbreeding adult can help guard pups and hunt for food.
Nevertheless, Bassing says, there seems to be a lot of variability across regions in how wolf packs respond to human meddling. Decades after researchers came to mistaken conclusions about wolf dynamics by studying captive animals, it’s still not entirely clear how human actions are affecting how packs work. “There’s a lot we don’t know about how hunting and tracking tinkers with pack structure,” Ausband says.
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Stephanie Pappas is a freelance science journalist. She is based in Denver, Colo.