Wolves generally travel in packs, lead by a breeding pair. They frequently establish territories ranging from 40 to more than 400 square miles. Defining their range with scent markings and vocalizations such as growls, barks, and their legendary howl.
Where food is plenty within the territory, a pack can number up to 30 wolves. Where prey is limited, the pack can range from 4 individuals to 7. What ever their number, the wolf pack is one of the most cohesive families in the nature kingdom.
We are learning more about the wolf in modern times thanks to the efforts of the U.S. Park Service to re-introduce the wolf back into Yellowstone National Park. You can follow the Wolves in Yellowstone on the National Park Services website.
It is believed that wolves mate for life. Only one male and one female in each pack will mate each year. The female gives birth to four to seven pups, which are cared for by their parents and other pack members, known as helpers. After the pups are trained to hunt and kill, they may choose to leave the pack or remain as helpers themselves.
Among the helpers the pack defines a social pecking order. Through physical harassment a wolf can set define his or her order in the social ranking of the pack. Some field biologists suggest the ‘favoritism’ of the alpha pair toward a particular member of the pack can also pay into their standing within the social order. Once the order is defined however, an intricate set of body postures further enhances a wolf’s position.
Physical postures denote the dominance or subordinate status of a wolf within the pack.
- Dominant Postures:
The alpha pair, or a dominant wolf beneath the pair will show their dominance several ways. Walking with their head and tail held high, walking into other members of the pack as if they have the road and you better move are two prominent examples. But there are a few more subtle exchanges that humans can look for as well. Baring teeth , slight growls and pinning back of the ears as another member walks by is a sign of dominance, not anger. One of the most subtle is making eye contact and not wavering the stare. They may wrinkle their forehead, nip, bite, or even hold the muzzle of another member within their own mouth to show superiority. One distinctive difference is seen during urination, a superior member will relieve himself in a standing position, with a hind leg raised. Where as a subordinate wolf will urinate in a squatting position
- Subordinate Postures:
A subordinate member is often noticed by its cowering type posture. Lowered head and tail, most often curled right under the body. They look down or away from other member instead of making direct eye contact. They often whine or squeal in submission to dominant members. They often approach a superior with their head bowed, making small steps forward, lifting one forepaw, much like what we would view as offering a hand shake. Subordinates will lay down and roll over to a dominant wolf, exposing its groin area. This is a very compromising position, since the stomach and groin area are very sensitive and open for attack. Subordinate members often solicit gestures from dominate members to reaffirm their position within the pack. Sort of an ‘am I still at the bottom’ question. These reaffirmations may often times seem cruel, but they actually maintain the cohesiveness of the pack without bloodshed or serious injury.
Wolves will eat a wide range of food, including small animals such as mice and squirrels, large animals such as deer and moose, and occasionally carrion and plant material. Attacks on humans are believed to occur only in isolated cases of famine or epidemic among the wolf population. Where domestic animals are available, wolves often prey on them because of their vulnerability; it is this practice that has resulted in the wolf’s persecution by poisoning, trapping, and shooting from ranchers.
The pack hunts as a cohesive unit, stalking and closing in on their prey much like a family of wild cats. The wolf pack will use high pitched yelps or barks to signal other members of their location during a hunt. Allowing everyone to know where everyone else is. If one member of the pack is exceptional at bringing down a large prey animal, for instance, the pack will try to force the prey toward that member.
Once the prey is captured, the alpha male and female usually get the first serving. Once they have completed their turn, the subordinates divide whatever may be left. Although this sounds like survival of the fittest, the alpha pair does not gorge on the captured prey. The success of the pack is crucial to the health of the pack. The dominant members will leave enough of the prey for the rest of the pack to feed upon. Especially if there are feeding pups within the membership.
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