A wolf pack is an exceedingly complex social unit—an extended family of parents, offspring, siblings, aunts, uncles, and sometimes dispersers from other packs. There are old wolves that need to be cared for, pups that need to be educated, and young adults that are beginning to assert themselves – all altering the dynamics of the pack.
The job of maintaining order and cohesion falls largely to the alphas, also known as the breeding pair. Typically, there is only one breeding pair in a pack. They, especially the alpha female (the mother of the pack), are the glue keeping the pack together. The loss of a parent can have a devastating impact on social group cohesion. In small packs, human-caused mortality of the alpha female or of both breeders can cause the entire pack to dissolve.
After the alphas, wolves second in command are called the betas, followed by mid-ranking wolves, and finally the omegas. Both mid- and low-ranking positions are somewhat fluid. Although an omega may hold that position for many years, it is not unheard of for the pack to pick a new omega and let the other retire.
Living in a pack not only facilitates the raising and feeding of pups, coordinated and collaborative hunting, and the defense of territory, it also allows for the formation of many unique emotional bonds between pack members, the foundation for cooperative living.
Wolves care for each other as individuals. They form friendships and nurture their own sick and injured. Pack structure enables communication, the education of the young and the transfer of knowledge across generations. Wolves and other highly social animals have and pass on what can be best described as culture. A family group can persevere for several generations, even decades, carrying knowledge and information through the years, from generation to generation.
Wolves play together into old age, they raise their young as a group, and they care for injured companions. When they lose a pack mate, there is evidence that they suffer and mourn that loss. When we look at wolves, we are looking at tribes—extended families, each with its own homeland, history, knowledge, and indeed, culture.
Wolves communicate, collaborate and share knowledge across generations. The older wolves, as more experienced hunters, share hunting strategies and techniques with younger wolves, passing down knowledge from one generation to the next, maintaining a culture unique to that pack.
The late biologist Gordon Haber observed wolves changing their hunting strategy based on weather, terrain, and prey behavior. Read about Gordon’s research here.
The Lone Wolf:
We often hear the phrase “lone wolf,” an expression of grudging admiration. A lone wolf is often viewed as a rugged individualist, uncompromising and independent, driven to forge his own path, unfettered by the sentimental need for companionship. In reality, few people would ever want to live this way—and, as it turns out, few wolves would either. Wolves, males and females alike, may go through periods alone, but they’re not interested in lives of solitude. A lone wolf is a wolf that is searching, and what it seeks is another wolf. Everything in a wolf’s nature tells it to belong to something greater than itself: a pack. Like us, wolves form friendships and maintain lifelong bonds. They succeed by cooperating, and they struggle when they’re alone. Like us, wolves need one another. Read more…
The Wolf You Know
In our dog companions, we recognize the face, a broad mask that tapers gracefully into a long muzzle. We have looked into the eyes, bright with curiosity. We understand the messages conveyed through posture: the alertness seen in expression, the playfulness of a bow, the confidence or fear betrayed by an animated tail. We can be forgiven for thinking we already know the wolf, for in many ways we already do.
Genetics leaves little doubt that domestic dogs, our canine companions, are descended from wolves. The DNA of any dog is almost exactly the same as that of a wolf.
You can see a lot of your dog in a wolf and a lot of wolf in your dog. They are both social animals. Just like elephants, gorillas and whales, they educate their young, take care of their injured and live in family groups.
The traits that wolves passed on to dogs served us well as we became shepherds and farmers. We capitalized on the wolf’s territorialism to create a dog that steadfastly guarded our flocks and property. We put the wolf’s superior sense of smell and knack for locating prey to use as trackers and retrievers on our own hunts. We transformed the wolf’s skill at harassing and maneuvering big grazing animals into a herding instinct, helping us move our livestock from place to place.
The wolf also passed along to dogs its most indispensable qualities: devotion to its pack, sociability, and a capacity for learning, communication, and expression.
In turning the wolf into the dog, we created the ultimate companion, a faithful friend that can understand our intentions even better than our fellow primates can.
Both wolves and humans brought unique, complementary talents to a relationship that was based on mutual respect. Several scholars agree that humans learned to hunt from wolves.
The relationship between dogs and humans has been so mutually beneficial and enduring that it is clear that we influenced each other’s evolution.
Knowing all that the wolf bequeathed to our beloved dogs, how strange that we reserve for wolves a special hatred that we hold for no other animal.
We brought our domestic dogs along with us, into our pastures, cities and homes.
Wolves are the dogs that stayed behind, favoring their wild ways. Perhaps we can’t forgive them for that.