Why everything you know about wolf packs is wrong
By Lauren Davis
The alpha wolf is a figure that looms large in our imagination. The notion of a supreme pack leader who fought his way to dominance and reigns superior to the other wolves in his pack informs both our fiction and is how many people understand wolf behavior. But the alpha wolf doesn’t exist—at least not in the wild…
Although the notions of “alpha wolf” and “alpha dog” seem thoroughly ingrained in our language, the idea of the alpha comes from Rudolph Schenkel, an animal behaviorist who, in 1947, published the then-groundbreaking paper “Expressions Studies on Wolves.” During the 1930s and 1940s, Schenkel studied captive wolves in Switzerland’s Zoo Basel, attempting to identify a “sociology of the wolf.”
In his research, Schenkel identified two primary wolves in a pack: a male “lead wolf” and a female “bitch.” He described them as “first in the pack group.” He also noted “violent rivalries” between individual members of the packs… Thus, the alpha wolf was born. Throughout his paper, Schenkel also draws frequent parallels between wolves and domestic dogs, often following his conclusions with anecdotes about our household canines. The implication is clear: wolves live in packs in which individual members vie for dominance and dogs, their domestic brethren, must be very similar indeed.
A key problem with Schenkel’s wolf studies is that, while they represented the first close study of wolves, they didn’t involve any study of wolves in the wild… In more recent years, animal behaviorists, including [wildlife biologist L. David] Mech, have spent more and more time studying wolves in the wild, and the behaviors they have observed has been different from those observed by Schenkel and other watchers of zoo-bound wolves. In 1999, Mech’s paper “Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs” was published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology. The paper is considered by many to be a turning point in understanding the structure of wolf packs…
Mech’s studies of wild wolves have found that wolves live in families: two parents along with their younger cubs. Wolves do not have an innate sense of rank; they are not born leaders or born followers. The “alphas” are simply what we would call in any other social group “parents.” The offspring follow the parents as naturally as they would in any other species. No one has “won” a role as leader of the pack; the parents may assert dominance over the offspring by virtue of being the parents. While the captive wolf studies saw unrelated adults living together in captivity, related, rather than unrelated, wolves travel together in the wild. Younger wolves do not overthrow the “alpha” to become the leader of the pack; as wolf pups grow older, they are dispersed from their parents’ packs, pair off with other dispersed wolves, have pups, and thus form packs of their owns.
This doesn’t mean that wolves don’t display social dominance, however… Wolves (and other animals, including humans), display social dominance, it just isn’t always easy to boil dominant behavior down to simple explanations. Dominant behavior and dominance relationships can be highly situational, and can vary greatly from individual to individual even within the same species. It’s not the entire concept of wolves displaying social dominance that was dispelled, just the simple hierarchical pack structure…
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