Alpha Wolf: A Discredited Theory?

New science suggests that wolves are more cooperative than dominating. This is leading some researchers to re-think the “alpha theory” of wolf behaviour.

What is the Alpha Wolf Theory?

In 1947, Rudolph Schenkel wrote “Expressions Studies on Wolves.” In it, he argued that wolf packs included a “bitch wolf” (dominant female) and a “lead wolf” (dominant male). These dominant wolves, he claimed, maintained their social position “by incessant control and repression of all types of competition (within the same sex).” In other words, wolves battled it out for their superior status. Although Schenkel never used the term alpha wolf, this book laid the foundation for the theory.

In 1970, David Mech’s book The Wolf: Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species supported and popularized Schenkel’s theory. Mech coined the term “alpha wolf” which furthered the idea that wolves fought among one another to establish top-ranking. Today, Mech, a leading wolf biologist, does not ascribe to the alpha theory. Instead, he has produced new evidence that disproves his former work.

Wolves in Captivity vs. Natural Environment

The theory that wolves battle to become “top dog” came from data gathered after watching wolves in captivity. Mech later conducted a study on pack behaviour in their natural habitat. That study found that wolves held in captivity change their behaviour. In captivity, wolves exhibit a social hierarchy resembling the alpha theory. But, in their natural habitat, wolf behaviour resembles that of caring parents not competitive alphas.

Wolf Packs as Family

Mech’s new research argues that the leaders of wolf packs are the parents of pups. There is no fighting between wolves to establish who is alpha. Instead, “the typical wolf pack is a family, with the adult parents guiding the activities of the group in a division-of-labor system in which the female predominates primarily in such activities as pup care and defence and the male primarily during foraging and food-provisioning and the travels associated with them.” Sometimes wolf packs are composed of multiple such families.

The social ranking of wolves is just a reflection of parent-pup relationships. Mech argues that “calling a wolf an alpha is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or a doe deer as alpha. Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so ‘alpha’ adds no information.”

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