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The Term Alpha Male Is All A Lie

Hens, wolves and a 50-year misunderstanding – it’s a wild ride.

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Eleanor Higgs

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clockDec 2 2022, 14:21 UTC
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Wolf Eyes

Contrary to popular belief, he doesn't have his eye on being leader of the pack. Image credit: Mircea Costina/Shutterstock.com

We hate to break it to you, but wolf packs don’t actually have alpha males and females. The researcher who introduced this term tried to clear up what had happened many years ago, but thanks to pop culture and some money-hungry publishers the confusion still persists. 

While most people believe that a wolf pack follows a strict hierarchy, with the alpha pair at the top of the pecking order (more on this later), a beta acting as a deputy, and even an omega who might be referred to as the victim of the group, the reality is much more family-oriented.

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Most wild wolf packs consist of the two parents and their offspring; this can also include older pups that have not yet left the natal pack. The adult wolves are in charge of the pack simply because they are the parents. The term alpha is outdated and implies that there is some sort of fight to be the leader, which is not the case. Most wolves that lead packs are simply the ones who have bred and had pups. In some packs that contain more than one breeding wolf the term "dominant daughter" is used, or the term "subordinate breeder". 

“Just because wolf packs are a familial unit does not mean there is not fierce competition between individuals in the pack from time to time," Thomas Gable, project lead of the Voyageurs Wolf Project, told IFLScience.   

"For a while, there was a big emphasis on the hierarchy within a pack which has been replaced, to an extent, with the idea that packs are largely familial units. But I think it is easy to go too far the other way and think of wolf packs as a nice happy family where everyone gets along," he added. "And certainly that can be the case, but there also is fierce competition between pack mates for resources and wolves often disperse from or leave their packs, likely due, in part, to competition for food or other resources with their pack mates."

The practice of using the term alpha male started because of research on wolf behavior in captivity. It is important to remember that wolves behave very differently in captivity, often kept in smaller spaces with unrelated individuals, than they do in the wild, in naturally formed family packs. 

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Rudolf Schenkel, an animal behaviorist, wrote about captive wolves in 1947, at Basel Zoo in Switzerland where 10 wolves were kept in a 10x20-meter (33x66-foot) space. He saw that the highest-ranked male and female formed a pair and that the hierarchy could change. He did also note that it was possible that in wild wolf packs the parents and pups of those parents constituted the pack, but this information was overlooked at the time. It was Schenkel’s work that gave rise to the term “alpha wolf”. 

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

Before Schenkel, there was a Norwegian zoologist called Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe in the 1920s who wrote about a pecking order in chickens. This idea became very popular and had a great influence on popular science at that time. The original expression was thought to have been “alpha hen” not “alpha male”, referring to the most dominant hen (female) in the group. Hens do have social pecking orders but roosters are not part of these groups, and the term alpha male is not applied in this scenario.

More research was done on wolves in the 1960s and 1970s, but again, almost exclusively on wolves in captivity. Dr L. David Mech, a scientist and wolf researcher, wrote a book called The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, published in 1970. The book was a hit and helped to popularize the alpha concept. However, Mech has since said that the information included in the book is outdated, including the idea of an alpha male dominant wolf.

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By 1999, Mech had published a great deal more wolf research in which he tried to correct the misunderstanding surrounding wolf social hierarchy. He spent many summers studying wild wolves on Ellesmere Island, Canada, where the pack had begun to acclimatize to his presence, allowing him to study them from a close range. He wrote and published that the alpha pair were simply the parents of the rest of the pack. While the younger wolves were submissive to the parents, there were few dominance fights. 

"[I]n natural wolf packs, the alpha male and female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all," Mech, who is the founder of the International Wolf Centre, wrote in an article entitled Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs. "During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none."  

In the wild, the young wolves split off from their packs to find opposite-sex partners with which to breed and form new packs. New research in Yellowstone suggests that Toxoplasma gondii – the parasite responsible for toxoplasmosis – might play a part in the dispersal process.

Once bonded, wolf pairs are highly monogamous and usually do not change partners unless one of the pair dies. The male and female dominate the pack and decide who eats first simply because they are the parents of the rest of the group. There are almost no fights between wild male offspring and their fathers for alpha male status. 

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“Most wolf pairings involve single wolves merely meeting up with potential mates and pair-bonding with them. I know of no situations where two or more males fight to gain access, although that is a very hard situation to observe in the wild,” Mech told IFLScience. 

So there we have it. To be the leader of the pack, there is no great dominance fight to the top; simply find a mate and start your own pack. The "alpha male" is a misunderstanding that persists to this day. 


natureNaturenatureanimals
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  • animals,

  • animal behavior,

  • wolves,

  • alpha male,

  • wolf pack

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