5 facts about the family life of wolves

August 20, 2015, 1:27 p.m.
Two arctic wolves in zoo.
Photo: balounm/Shutterstock

1. Wolves are highly social and family-oriented animals. Rather than living in a pack of unrelated wolves, a pack is usually made up of an alpha male and female, offspring from previous years who are "helper" wolves, and the current year's litter of pups. Sometimes, but rarely, a lone outsider will be welcomed into the pack as well. Packs can range from as few as three or four wolves to as many as 20 members depending on the abundance of food within the pack's territory.

2. For a long time it was thought that there was an established pecking order in a wolf pack, with the alpha male and female having earned their rank through dominance. New research has shown that this "fight for dominance" is far from the truth. "Wolves do not have an innate sense of rank; they are not born leaders or born followers," writes io9. "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." Meanwhile, younger wolves don't typically fight an alpha for rank, but instead disperse from the family group to form their own pack in another territory.

3. Just because wolf packs are family-based doesn't mean there isn't a social order within the pack. Wolves are highly communicative with one another, and use both vocal cues and body language to get a message across, including who is higher up in the pecking order. The "pecking order" however can change depending on the social situation, whether it is feeding time or play time, when it is time to raise pups or perhaps time for some of the younger members to disperse from the pack.

4. Because a wolf pack is really a family unit, raising a litter isn't just a job for the mother and father of the pups. All the wolves in a pack help to take care of the newest offspring. This includes feeding them, watching over them, and of course playing with them as they grow up. Help also includes pack members bringing food for the alpha female when the pups are just born and she cannot leave the den.

5. Wolves have a strong emotional connection to their pack mates and it has been shown that when a member of a pack dies, the other wolves mourn. "Jim and Jamie Dutcher [of Living With Wolves] describe the grief and mourning in a wolf pack after the loss of the low-ranking omega female wolf, Motaki, to a mountain lion," writes well-known animal ethologist Marc Bekoff in Psychology Today. "The pack lost their spirit and their playfulness. They no longer howled as a group, but rather they 'sang alone in a slow mournful cry.' They were depressed — tails and heads held low and walking softly and slowly — when they came upon the place where Motaki was killed. They inspected the area and pinned their ears back and dropped their tails, a gesture that usually means submission. It took about six weeks for the pack to return to normal."

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