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Wolves: The Pack
A Grey Wolf
Wolves originally evolved around five million years ago in the New World. During the last Ice age, a time known as the Pleistocene, the modern Grey Wolf lived alongside a much larger relative called the Dire Wolf, the largest canine species ever to exist. But unlike its smaller relative, this formidable creature never made the considerable journey from America to Eurasia. The Grey Wolf on the other hand, crossed into Siberia from Alaska, and settled over large swathes of Eurasia, then towards the end of the last Ice age, roughly 20,000 years ago, it embarked on a homecoming journey, resettling North America, except for a small region in the south eastern US, which to this day remains the home of the Red Wolf, a closely related, but altogether different species.
Today, in the 21st Century, thanks largely to detailed studies carried out by Scientists in the field, we now have a vast amount of information relating to the behaviour of Grey Wolves. In particular the complex and often subtle ways they run their societies, incorporating sound, smell and posture with each used in a different way according to the particular rank of an individual when communicating with its fellows.
The pack is a close tight knit band of mostly closely related animals, usually consisting of 8 to 12 individuals. At the top of the pile is a male and female pair, both known as the Alpha Pair, although the term Alpha does not imply domination. In the wild, the Alpha or Breeding pair are simply the two Wolves who enjoy the greatest amount of social freedom. Wolves, when living freely in their natural habitat are held together by strong, emotional family ties. On the other hand, the Wolves we observe in a zoo usually display more aggressive and domineering behaviour towards each other. This is because the zoo is an artificial setting, the 'pack' is often made up of strangers- unrelated animals, and thus lack the strong ties of a wild pack.
The Alphas essentially lead the pack, but contrary to the usual convention in the Natural world, they are not always the biggest Wolves. Indeed, it seems that like us, intelligence and experience go much further than brute force. The Alpha Pair make all of the necessary decisions to protect the pack and their territory; in return they enjoy the privilege of usually being the only two Wolves allowed to reproduce.
In visual communication, the muzzle is one of the most important parts of a Wolf’s body. The Alpha Pair are easy to recognise because they possess muzzles that are highlighted with bold lines and colours, which serve to act as a clear visual sign to warn the other members of the pack as to their status. We often think that when we stare into a Wolf’s or Dog’s eyes, that it represents some sort of challenge. But in the world of the Wolf pack, it’s more likely to be our teeth that will help define who the dominant animal is. Adult Wolves will actively teach pups to avert their muzzles whenever they approach an adult. They do this by snapping into the air near the pups’ head in order to force them to turn away or to lower their heads. If a pup learns this properly at a young age, then they will be finely tuned in the art of Wolf etiquette within the pack, submitting to more dominant animals and thus staying alive longer.
Each member of the pack will adopt a different head position depending on their rank within the social order. For instance a mid ranking animal would show respect and submission to a higher ranked animal by moving its muzzle horizontally to either the left or the right. If the animals fails to comply, then the dominant animals is within their right to move their own muzzle to either the left or the right of the offender’s muzzle. The purpose of this is to simply intimidate the individual, but if that fails, then the higher ranked animal will issue a low throaty growl, increasing the intensity if needed. The dominant animal will back up their vocal threat with facial expressions. A snap into the air just to the side of the subordinates muzzle serves as a final warning before physical force is used.
Wolves’ ears also play a crucial role in communication between individuals. They can be splayed sideways, so as to resemble an outstretched wing, which informs the intended recipient that the Wolf is behaving defensively. The ears can also be extended or pointed forwards to gain respect by drawing attention to their muzzle.
The hackles can be raised around the neck, in situations where a Wolf needs to fool an adversary into thinking they are much bigger than they really are. A dominant animal has a continuous bold line that extends from the neck all the way along the spine to the tip of the tail, the bolder and more continuous the line, the more dominant the animal is.
There is an intriguing, but as of yet unproven theory that different types of food eaten by specific ranks within the pack affect their colour, markings and scent patterns. I can understand the logic behind the theory, for example if an ageing Alpha Wolf gets demoted by a younger candidate, then the older Wolf will no longer have access to the choicest parts of a kill. The theory gains creditability through the fact that photographic evidence has recorded a change in the markings and colour of demoted individuals, which maybe suggests direct links between food, markings and rank.
Climbing the Ladder
Wolves probably recognise each other by scent, more so than any other sense. The dominant pair usually consume the best quality food from each kill, in particular organs such as the Heart, Liver, Kidneys, the Brain and the best fresh meat. This helps the dominant pair to maintain a much stronger smell than the other pack members. Wolves have very strict rules regarding the division of food; this is to ensure that each member emits a different rank in accordance with their rank.
The Alpha Pair must emit a strong scent for the purposes of defending the pack’s territory, as rival packs will always attempt to exploit any weaknesses in their neighbours. If the Alpha's scent remains strong and powerful, then strangers will take heed and avoid trespassing. The Alphas lay down scent in a variety of fashions, by urinating, defecating and rubbing themselves against trees on the borders of their territory, the design is simply to broadcast a message to rival packs or to lone Wolves that dwell in buffer zones or no mans lands between established packs. Raised leg urination that is a familiar sight to dog owners around the world, is in fact only employed by the Alphas, it enables them to spray their strong scent higher up a tree or bush, which is absolutely vital in defending their territory from interlopers.
Changes in season affect both the variety and intensity of scent patterns, continually altering the level of potential threat from neighbouring packs. The responsibility of protecting the family falls to the dominant male, he must maintain and reinforce all of the scent patterns that define the pack’s territory; therefore it is vital that he is always given the choicest parts of the kill.
Sound of the Wild
Wolves use growls, yips, yaps and whines at close range in correlation with body language. The howl is primarily used as a long range method of communication, with pack members who are out of visual range, or with rival Wolves as a way of avoiding conflict; it can be heard across several miles. Each pack member’s howl is slightly different, depending on their rank. The Alpha Pair's tone is low, and they can also be recognised by the length of pause taken between each howl. It may not always be the Alphas that initiates a howl, but they will quickly assume control once contact has been made. If the Alpha Pair feels the need to prolong the howls, they will encourage the others by repeating a long, deep howl or if they wish the pack to stop, then a series of two or three cut off howls in rapid succession is usually enough to suffice.
The Betas are the lieutenants of the pack, bettered in rank only by the Alpha Pair. Usually they consist of a pair of animals, where numbers permit for it. Their main role is to maintain order and discipline within the family. They are easy to recognise because more than often, they are the biggest and boldest animals in the pack, relying on their size and strength to establish packs rules laid down by the Alpha Pair, so perhaps its more accurate to describe them as the Sergeant Majors of the pack, rather than the Lieutenants. The Beta’s role as an enforcer is vital because they help to deflect any potential danger away from the Alphas, the lifeblood of the pack. The Beta’s spine markings are bold, but broken unlike the strong and continuous lines of the Alphas.
The Beta’s have a low vocal tone, although not as low as the Alphas, but lower than the rest of the pack. They will howl for around three to four times longer than the Alphas, to add strength and continuity to the packs calls.
Shaun Ellis, renowned Wolf Behaviour Expert
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The Mid Rankers
Going through the pack, past the Betas, we come to the mid ranking Wolves, which are usually led by a pair of more dominant Wolves. The female teaches and disciplines her subordinates and the male does likewise with his. These animals receive information from the Alpha Pair via the Betas. In large packs, numbering fifteen animals or more, this line of communication is vital for the Alphas to retain control.
The main role of the mid ranking Wolves is to create the impression that there are more Wolves in the pack than there actually are. This is achieved in several ways; firstly they vary their diet to ensure that their scent markings never remain the same, thus creating the illusion of a larger number of Wolves. Also, during howling, the mid ranker's will use a variety of sounds – yaps, yips, barks, whines, howls and growls, again to create the illusion of more Wolves and to confuse neighbouring packs. The mid ranker's are naturally suspicious and are always wary of the unfamiliar. The Alpha Pair and Betas rely on them to notify the pack of any danger.
Low Rank or Specialist?
A Documentary chronicling the lives of Pups in a Wolf Pack
The pack is completed by a range of specialists; the hunters, the nannies and the often misunderstood Omega Wolves, often referred to as the lowest ranked individuals. The Hunters are usually female, because they are roughly 20 to 25 per cent smaller than the males, and therefore far more fleet of foot. They have ability to catch the prey or cut off possible escape routes of their quarry. The females’ swiftness is backed up by the males’ strength, which is vital asset when hunting large prey such as Bison or Elk. The female hunter usually separates the quarry from the herd, in an effort to tire it out, but she needs the assistance of the males to pull the animal down. The Nannies are specialist female or male Wolves that are selected by the Alpha Female to care for and educate her pups once they are fully weaned, as she has to return to her duties as leader of the pack.
The Omega Wolves, despite, the initial impression of being of comparative low rank are essential to the survival of the pack. Their main responsibility is to defuse tension and minimise injury. Omega Wolves start exhibiting these characteristics from the age of just a couple of weeks, as they are always at the centre of constant bickering and quarrelling among their litter. The Omega has to learn very quickly how to attract attention towards itself by playing games, and acting in a way similar to a clown. Then it will use a series of instinctive and learned behaviours, such as body postures, facial expressions and vocal sounds to bring calm to a situation, thus restoring harmony and avoiding unnecessary injury.
The howl of the Omega is the most tuneful in the pack, with both high and low notes reached. By being the most tuneful, the Omega can restore harmony after a bout of howling, it can also serve to calm the pack down when it’s on the defensive.
The Omega is often given the unfair label of ‘Cinderella Wolf’ due to its perceived mistreatment at the hands of the others. You can understand this feeling though, when you observe Wolves feeding on a kill, because the Wolf that is chased away from the carcass is usually the Omega. But it is now thought that this done to ensure that the high ranking animals have allowance to change positions at the carcass without fighting. This help to ensure that they get the select parts and the right amount of food according to their rank. A hungry Wolf could seriously injure its fellows without the distraction provided by the Omega constantly trying to gain access, and subsequently getting chased away. Once the higher ranks have finished, the Omega is rewarded by being allowed access to some high quality food that has been saved specifically by a Beta Wolf. So it could well be possible, that the Omega, despite first impressions, the Omega is actually a specialist, in the same way that a Hunter of Nanny is. The act of the Beta saving some high quality food for the Omega may actually suggest that the supposed Cinderella Wolf is actually of high rank. I suppose the equivalent in a human society would be the wise person, or the voice of reason.
I think it’s fascinating delving into Wolf behaviour, and I also think that it is of great relevance to us today. After all, millions of us around the world actually share our home with a Wolf. The Domestic Dog, despite all of the changes we have wrought on it through the millennia, is still classified as a subspecies of the Grey Wolf, Canis Lupis Familiaris, whether it be a Great Dane, a Poodle or a Chihuahua.
They may not look like Wolves, but Genetically they are.
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