Tag Archives: wolves

There’s no such thing as ‘alpha’ males or females in wolf packs

Credit: Pixabay.

In the 1940s, researchers studying wolf packs noticed that they formed strict strength-based hierarchies were a dominant male and a dominant female controlled the other individuals, deciding the order in which they were allowed to eat or mate. To describe this dominant pairs and subordinates, researchers introduced the terms ‘alpha’ (the chief), ‘beta’ (the debuty), or ‘omega’ wolf (the bottom of the rank). Later, these terms became ingrained in human consciousness and cultural lingo to describe dominance hierarchies in other contexts, including humans.

But there’s a problem. This entire designation is wrong. While it’s true that multiple wolves who share a small space in captivity will develop alpha- and beta-like hierarchies, wild wolves behave nothing like this. In the wild, a wolf pack is typically formed by monogamous parents and their puppies. Sometimes, the pack might also include older siblings aged one to three years old. That’s it.

The wolf pack is basically a tightly knit family unit consisting of “parents”, or “breeders”, and their offspring. Unless you’re ready to call your mom and dad ‘alpha’, these terms have no grounds in reality.

Where did the idea of ‘alpha’ wolves come from?

Credit: Pixabay.

The notion of leading wolves that control a pack of subordinates can be traced to 1947, when Rudolf Schenkel wrote a paper titled Expressions Studies on Wolves, in which he described the behavior of ten wolves kept at the Basel Zoo in Switzerland in a relatively small pen about 10 by 20 meters. During his observations, Schenkel noticed that the highest-ranked males and females formed a pair.

“By continuously controlling and suppressing all types of competition within the same sex, both ‘alpha animals’ defend their social position,” Schenkel wrote.

The pack behaviors described by Schenkel, including the ‘alpha’ dominance hierarchy, proved highly influential and were picked up by other ecologists, including David Mech, the founder of the International Wolf Center and one of the world’s foremost experts on wolf ecology.

Mech published a book called “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, which proved immensely popular and further ingrained the concept of the alpha wolf in the niche literature, with many other researchers citing the book. Other research performed in the 1960s and 1970s, all on wolves held in captivity, seemed to confirm the alpha wolf model.

But after he published the book, he noted that later studies on wolves in the wild showed that this model is outdated.

“That concept was based on the old idea that wolves fight within a pack to gain dominance and that the winner is the ‘alpha’ wolf,” Mech said.

“[The book was] republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years than in all of previous history,” he added.

Like other debunked or misinterpreted science that is somehow still popular, such as Darwin’s survival of the fittest (misunderstood by many as ‘the strongest are favored by nature to survive’) or John Locke’s Tabula Rasa, the alpha wolf is perhaps more widespread in popular culture than ever.

Why there are no alpha wolves

Credit: Pixabay.

One of the implications of the ‘alpha’ of the pack is that individuals compete with others to become the top dog, typically through battle.

However, in the wild, the leading members of a pack are the breeders of the offspring. In other words, the vast majority of wolves that lead packs earn their position simply by mating and producing pups. For this reason, scientists now call leading wolves the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.” 

This has been confirmed by many recent studies, including two papers published by David Mech in 1999 and 2000, who extraordinarily managed to make a wolf pack from Ellesmere Island in Canada acclimatize to his presence over the course of 13 summers. Mech was able to study the pack up close, sometimes from up to a meter away. “Dominance fights with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers where I observed the pack, I saw none,” Mech wrote in one of his articles.

Elsewhere, in Norway, Barbara Zimmermann and colleagues from the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences studied wolf pack behavior using GPS devices. The typical Scandinavian wolf pack consists of six members, usually two parents and four puppies. The parents establish their territory by marking a large area of the forest with their scent, and then patrol and defend their territory from intruders.

During February and March, the wolves mate and offspring are born in May. While the female nurses the young in her den for the first couple of weeks, only the male hunts. The male parent eats as much prey as possible then comes back to the den and vomits food for the female to eat. Then, they switch roles, with the female going out to hunt and bring back food while the male guards the den.

“What is exciting about wolf pairs is that they are unbelievably faithful. They stay together all the time,” Zimmermann told Science Nordic, describing the monogamous nature of wolves.

“More than 70 percent of GPS positions from wolf pairs show they remain within 100 meters of each other. So they are incredibly dependent on each other,” she added.

By October, the offspring are big enough to follow the adults around, although they are not allowed to hunt. The pups get to eat whatever prey the adults bring home to the den in the evening. This is yet another dispelled notion of the alpha wolf pack, which suggests a pack of wolves hunts in teams and moves together at all times. In reality, the young wolves are gradually weaned off and typically hunt on their own when they leave the pack to establish their own families.

Most pups leave the pack when they are one year old. This usually happens in waves, with 1-2 pups leaving early, while the rest are forced to finally leave the pack when the parents make new offspring.

The young wolves go out in search of a mate and suitable area to claim as their own territory. In some situations, young wolves are allowed to forage in their parents’ territory for up to two more years.

In other places, such as Yellowstone National Park where wolves were reintroduced in 1995, the packs can be larger and several members may hunt together. But even these packs are exclusively formed of parents and offspring. It’s just that some are as old as four years of age. This situation is enabled by the fact that Yellowstone has a much higher prey density than other regions where wolves are endemic.

Other variations include packs where one of the deceased parents is replaced by a new partner, sometimes with cubs in tow. In larger packs, there may be situations where both mother and daughter give birth but the daughter is still subordinate to the mother, although she retains control of her own offspring. This latter situation may be the only instance where the term ‘alpha’ may be used.

However, in none of these outlined situations is there any evidence of strength-based dominance hierarchy that occupies the public’s mind. Instead, a wolf pack is a family unit where the parents (or in rare situations the grandparents) lead by virtue of being the ones that brought the rest of the pack to life.

Today, the term ‘alpha wolf’ is no longer in fashion among researchers specialized in wolf ecology. However, it is still in use in the vernacular and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future. Yet humans who subscribe to the idea of “alpha males” might want to keep in mind that this concept only applies to the behavior of captive and cornered creatures.

This article was originally published in July 2021.

How your labrador’s yellow coat may shed secrets about canine evolution

The level of variation in dogs is simply astounding. It’s hard to believe when you look at them, but Great Danes and Chihuahuas are the same species despite a ten-fold difference in size and mass. Fur color patterns are also responsible for a rich pallet of distinctive characteristics among different breeds. And, according to a new study, these fur coloring variations are owed to genes inherited from a distant common ancestor of dogs and wolves.

The surprising connection between a yellow lab and a white wolf

Professor Danika Bannasch is a geneticist and veterinarian at the University of California, Davis, whose work is focused on identifying the molecular causes for inherited diseases in dogs and horses. While at the University of Bern in Switzerland, Bannasch got the idea of figuring out the fundamental genetic basis for black and tan coat colors in dogs. She quickly rallied other colleagues, including researchers affiliated with the HudsonAlpha Institute, who are experts in phylogenetics and mammalian coat patterning.

Both wolves and dogs make two different types of pigments: a black pigment called eumelanin and a yellow pigment called pheomelanin. Combining these two pigments at the right time and the right place in the canine body produces five major color patterns or phenotypes. In Bannasch’s study, these phenotypes are dominant yellow, shaded yellow, agouti, black saddle, and black back. 

Within each pattern type, there may be variation due to other factors including: (1) the position of the boundaries between pheomelanic and eumelanic areas, for example in black saddle or black back; (2) the shade of pheomelanin (red to nearly white); (3) presence of a black facial mask or white spotting caused by genes other than ASIP; and (4) length and/or curl of hair coat. Patterns are displayed in order of dominance. Credit: Nature Ecology and Evolution.

After sequencing the DNA of ancient dogs and wolves, the researchers discovered that the production of the yellow pigment is controlled by the agouti signaling protein, whose activity is, in turn, controlled by the ASIP gene. Mutations in two distinct areas of the ASIP gene lead to different coat patterns.

But what was very surprising was the fact that the ASIP gene has been around for at least two million years, much earlier than the domestication of dogs around 30,000 years ago.

This gene originated in a now-extinct canid that diverged from gray wolves, which explains why the same genetic combination responsible for dominant yellow coat patterns is shared with arctic white wolves. The lighter coat was likely an advantageous adaptation to the extinct canid ancestor in an arctic environment, such as during the glaciation periods between 1.5 and 2 million years ago. The coat pattern persisted and was eventually inherited by dogs and wolves.

“While we think about all this variation in coat color among dogs, some of it happened long before ‘dogs’ were dogs,” Bannasch said. “The genetics turn out to be a lot more interesting because they tell us something about canid evolution.”

“We were initially surprised to discover that white wolves and yellow dogs have an almost identical ASIP DNA configuration,” added Chris Kaelin of the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Alabama. “But we were even more surprised when it turned out that a specific DNA configuration is more than 2 million years old, prior to the emergence of modern wolves as a species.”

Meanwhile, the black back pattern was identified in a dog sample as early as 9,500 years old, showing that dogs had rich coat variations early on.

Bannasch actually has a black back Danish Swedish farmdog and two Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers with a dominant yellow pattern. Now, she only needs three other coat patterns to have the full set, she joked.

The findings were reported in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Dire wolves genes show they weren’t really wolves

 A pack of dire wolves (Canis dirus) is feeding on their bison kill, while a pair of grey wolves (Canis lupus) approach in the hopes of scavenging. In reality, the two never met. What’s more, dire wolves are surprisingly separated by modern wolves by millions of years. Credit: Mauricio Antón.

The fierce dire wolves dominated the ecology of Pleistocene America. Scientists still know very little about this extinct large carnivore, but a new study is filling in some of the blanks. According to a new study that sequenced five genomes from samples dating from 13,000 to more than 50,000 years ago, dire wolves were very different from today’s extant grey wolves, despite their similar appearance.

The last of the dog lineage in the Americas

Dire wolves were first discovered in the 1850s. Their abundant remains numbering in the thousands have been scattered all over the two American continents, from Canada to Bolivia. These were highly effective predators who could grow up to two meters (~six feet) long and had skeletal adaptations that made them suited for taking down huge megafauna that roamed the land before the last ice age.

Due to their morphology, scientists have always presumed that dire wolves and modern wolves must have been closely related. But a new study published this week in the journal Nature seems to remind us that similar skeletons and other morphological features do not necessarily reflect kinship.

The team of researchers, which involved scientists at Durham University in the U.S. and the University of Adelaide in Australia, sequenced the DNA from five dire wolf bones. The scientists embarked on this study to learn more about the biology of dire wolves, but they were shocked to find by the genome sequence that the extinct beasts last shared a common ancestor with living wolf-like canines around 5.7 million years ago. Dire wolves actually diverged from African jackals around 5.1 million years ago.

So the strong resemblance between the two, strange as it may sound, is simply incidental — a fine example of convergent evolution, whereby two unrelated species develop similar adaptations. In this case, two unrelated species evolved a similar appearance, probably due to similar habitats and ecological niches.

And despite the frequency of hybridization among Canidae members, dire wolves and the ancestors of modern wolves and coyotes never interbred, which must mean they lived in geographical isolation from one another. Yet just one of the two lineages survived, so perhaps this lack of admixture may have contributed to their downfall.

It is possible that the ancestor of grey wolves and coyotes had some gene variants that were more advantageous in the shifting environment that saw dire wolves unable to adapt during the Late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions. Gray wolves are famous for their adaptability. Dire wolves, not so much it seems. 

Wolves are better team players than dogs, study reveals, casting doubt on our view of domestication

Wolves might actually be friendlier and more forthcoming that dogs when cooperation is concerned, new research suggests. The findings go against the grain of popular wisdom that casts ‘man’s best friend’ as more of a team player than the wolf.


Image credits Andrea Bohl.

Wolves — they eat grandmothers and ambush unsuspecting kids traveling through the forest. At least, they do so in fairy tales. But that image is a good representative of what people generally hold to be true about wolves: these are dangerous, highly intelligent, highly capable hunters and ultimately, profoundly wild creatures. Our view of the dogs, however, is the polar opposite. They’re fluffy, playful members of the family, so perfectly adapted to civilized life and so socially graceful that they won the monicker “man’s best friends.”

Not so fast

It’s also not true, according to a research team led by Dr Sarah Marshall-Pescini, a senior postdoc researcher at the Wolf Science and Clever dog Lab. Although previous research often suggests that domestication has imparted a more tolerant temperament to dogs compared to their wolf ancestors, a paper Dr Sarah’s team recently published casts doubt on this idea.

“We still have very much this idea of the big, bad wolf and the cuddly pooch on your sofa,” Dr Sarah Marshall-Pescini, who led the research, told BBC News.

“But, I think the simplest message is that the story is not quite as clear as that.”

Wolves are very social animals. They base their packs on close familial ties and work together to raise pups or hunt. Modern dogs are also considered to be social animals. However, they don’t exhibit cooperation behaviors such as those listed above. Considering the belief that domestication made them friendlier and more tolerant of humans and other dogs, that shouldn’t be the case.

To find out what’s up, the team ran a classic behavior experiment and tested both species at the Wolf Science Center in Vienna, Austria, where wolves and dogs are raised together in the same environment ever since puppyhood. Known as the rope-pulling test, it’s basically a set-up that requires two animals to pull on a rope and get access to some food. The trick is that the testees have to work together — if they don’t both simultaneously pull on the rope, they don’t get any reward.

The center houses about 15 mongrel dogs and seven small packs of timber wolves, with two to three wolves in each pack. Dogs managed to successfully complete the test 2 times out of a total of 416 attempts, while wolves succeeded 100 times in 416 attempts — which, according to Dr Marshall-Pescini, puts their performance on par with that of chimpanzees. It’s probably glaringly evident, but the dogs almost never worked together, only collaborating 0.48% of the time. The team’s working hypothesis is that the dogs were reluctant to work together on the rope task because they wished to avoid potential conflicts — both wolves and dogs were curious about the food trays, the team reports, but dogs approached the food one at a time while wolves rarely waited their turn.

“Wolves will argue over food but also feed at the same time, [but] dogs simply avoid the potential [of] conflict,” Marshall-Pescini explains.

Too domesticated?

Dog snout.

Image credits Wow Phochiangrak.

The findings suggest that wolves’ wild streak makes them less averse to conflict, and they instead sort things out while working together. It goes against the traditional view of domestication, which holds that the process fosters more cooperative species. It’s easy to see why. Our perception of dogs as more cooperative than wolves likely comes down to the fact that dogs can be easily trained to work (as herd dogs, in hunts, or to rescue trapped survivors) or play with us.

However, it’s much harder to get dogs to cooperate with fellow dogs once you take people out of the picture. The team notes that this is especially true of village dogs, free-ranging animals with no owners or training which make up about 80% of all dogs on the planet. They will gather in loose packs and subsist mostly on scavaging garbage bins for scraps.

Very little research has been devoted to understanding these mooches, but work such as this might change that. The team’s next step will be to test how rearing or breeding changes how dogs cooperate with other dogs. Marshall-Pescini also wants to design a test that requires sequential cooperation, so the dogs’ tendency to avoid going after food at the same time can be taken out of the equation.

The paper “Importance of a species’ socioecology: Wolves outperform dogs in a conspecific cooperation task” has been published in the journal PNAS.


Dogs and wolves share a sense of fairness

Many dog owners — and this seems to have been confirmed by science — can attest that when obviously treated unfairly, a dog will recognize this situation and react. It’s been always thought that this is an acquired trait from living with humans but new research shows wolves do the same suggesting the behavior predates canine domestication.


Credit: Pixabay.

Humans are such a successful species largely because of cooperation. Alone we don’t amount to much but together we can literally shape the world. For cooperation to work, etiquette is necessary and to enforce these rules of cooperation humans have learned to sense inequality, to develop a ‘sense of fairness’. It’s believed this behavior is present in non-human primates as well but also in other intelligent social species.

Scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna worked with dogs and wolves that were raised to live in packs. In the experiment, two animals of each species were placed in adjacent cages where a buzzer would ring when the dog or wolf pressed it with their paw. When the buzzer was pressed, it would sometimes offer both animals a reward but the preferred and thus higher quality treat was again given to the partner. Other times, the animal performing the task would get nothing while the adjacent partner did.

When the partner got a treat but the dog or wolf performing the task didn’t, the animal doing the pressing refused to continue with it. Most tellingly, the dogs and wolves were happy to press the buzzer for no reward when there was no partner there. An unfairness threshold had been breached and cooperation ceased. Hierarchy in the pack for both dogs and wolves also played a role as the alpha males ceased the cooperation more quickly.


“When the inequity was greatest they stopped working,” said Jennifer Essler, from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna.

“For some of them it was a really really quick and strong response. One of the wolves stopped working after the third trial of not receiving anything while his partner received something. I think he was so frustrated he even broke the apparatus.”

Because both wolves and dogs have the same response, it overturns the idea that this behavior is acquired by domestication. Instead, the behavior must have first appeared in a common ancestor to both dogs and wolves. So next time you ground Fido for being naughty, you better help that inner wolf doesn’t come back at you.

The findings appeared in the journal Current Biology.