Running With The Wolves

Wolf Information & Awareness Center
"Wolf Behavior"
Part I
Article by Wolf Howl Organization

Pack and Hierarchy

Alpha: The male and/or female who lead the pack.
Beta: The male and/or female most likely to replace the current alpha of the same gender.
Subordinate: Each member of the pack who is not an alpha, beta, or omega.
Omega: The lowest ranking Wolf of the pack.

Like a family, the Wolf pack is a social unit. The pack consists of the breeding pair, or parents, called the alphas and their daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers. The alphas are not always the biggest Wolves in the pack, but are generally the toughest and most respected. Wolf packs have from two to an undetermined number of individuals. The average Wolf pack consists of four to seven individuals, with packs having as many as thirty-six members documented, and packs having over fifty members rumored about. In Europe, Wolf packs are smaller, having just three or four Wolves each.

The pack is led by the alpha male and/or female. The term "alpha" was coined in 1974 by Rudolph Schenkel, a Swiss animal behaviorist. The alpha male usually controls the activities of the other Wolves in the pack, but occasionally a very strong female who has usurped control from him. The pack structure benefits Wolves greatly in places where they may act unrestricted by human beings. As the old saying goes, "there is power in numbers," and this especially comes into play when Wolves hunt as a group or collectively care for and teach their puppies. Hunting as a group allows the taking of larger pray; the Wolves can relay in the chase, thus conserving their strength, and bringing to bear more claws and fangs on their intended meal. Where human beings resort to shooting Wolves for depredation of livestock, or acts of artificially contrived population control, the pack structure can actually act as a disadvantage, as Wolves can be killed en masse from airplanes and helicopters.

When a pack alpha is deposed by the pack, which means forcefully removed form the pack, or becomes the victim of a fatal injury or illness, the pack may have only the remaining alpha for a time until another suitable mate is selected. Deposition may result in the death of the ousted member as a frenzy of violence, sort of like mob mentality, may lead the pack to chasing the deposed Wolf to exhaustion and then killing him or her.

Control of the males is generally the duty of the male alpha, and the females by the alpha female, although either leader may dominate the subordinates of either gender. Alpha Wolves maintain their rank by simple respect; which is granted by their ability to dominate other members of the pack in ritual combat. When one Wolf seeks to dominate another challenge is made and if the challenged Wolf does not submit a fight may result to determine which Wolf is superior. Repeatedly winning these contests results in a reputation within the pack, making the dominating Wolf the pack leader.

The leaders of an established pack retain the right to mate, not through title, but through the ability to keep other Wolves of their gender from copulating with others during the mating season. The alpha male usually accepts the strongest female to mate with; and this tends to be the same bitch year after year unless she is deposed. The alphas are the first Wolves to feed at the site of a pack kill.

Beta Wolves are strong Wolves who may repeatedly challenge their alphas for rule of the pack. The beta male may attempt to mate with the alpha female during mating season and the alpha male must chase him away to make sure he doesn't. The same thing applies to the beta female, who may try to entice the alpha male to mount her until chased away by the alpha female. The betas are also able to dominate the other subordinates upon virtually every challenge issued by them.

The Omega Wolf is the male or female at the bottom of the hierarchy. The omega Wolf is usually the last to feed at the site of a pack kill. The omega seems to be the scapegoat for the other Wolves and generally slinks and submits at the least act of aggression by others. When the alpha is in a particularly grouchy mood he may not allow the omega to feed, or constantly dominate him or her. The omega plays an important role in the pack by acting as a kind of social glue, allowing frustration to be vented without actual acts of war, which could threaten the pack structure, from breaking out. It is interesting to note that in packs that have been observed losing their omega, the entire pack has entered into a long period of mourning where the entire pack stops hunting and just lays around looking miserable. Omegas have been known to become stronger and literally fight their way back up the ranks to take a place among the subordinates; this can happen if they repeated win challenge against other Wolves.


Intellect
 
Wolves are extremely intelligent beings, having great curiosity, the ability to learn quickly, and the full range of emotions people like to attribute to humans alone. It is documented that Wolves have a physical brain size from one-sixth to one-third larger than domestic canines. Also documented, are Wolves ability to tread through standing water to mask their scent and opening doors by turning the doorknob after having watched the humans doing it. In the wild, Wolves develop complex hunting strategies in order to chase down and capture pray as a group. Wolves are very curious creatures who will inspect and play with unusual items. This ability to find out more about things serves them well in their ability to track pray animals.

Communication

Audible: Wolves use several forms of verbal communication, including high-pitched-barks, yips, whines, whimpers, and howls. Whines and whimpers may be an indication of either physical or emotional discomfort. Puppies often whimper to gain access to their bitch's nipples when they are hungry. A yip might be heard when a Wolf is suddenly frightened or hurt during play or ritual combat. Barks or woofs are generally short and warn against the approach of intruders or to attract the attention of another Wolf within visual range. Of all the sounds, none are as famous, haunting, or beautiful as a Wolf's howl.

Wolves howl alone or together for a variety of reasons. To notify other Wolves of their whereabouts; such as when they wish to attract a mate, rally the pack together for the hunt, when distressed, during or after playing and other social interactions, and often just for the fun of it. Howling sessions among multiple Wolves generally begin as a series of short yaps, then howls that last from less than a second to longer than ten seconds. During the howl the voice may maintain a single tonal quality or cascade from high down to low and then back up to high. Group howls can take on a truly frenzied quality, and two or three howling Wolves can sound like a dozen or more. Larger Wolves tend to have a lower sounding howl. A Wolf's howl can be heard for up to ten miles under optimal conditions. Wolves can howl while standing, sitting, or laying down. Wolves do not howl at the moon as so many people like to romanticize, studies have shown no correlation to Wolves howling and lunar phase; Wolves just love to howl, period.


Somatic

Body language pays an important role in lupine communications also. Wolves have a very complex series of expressions and postures they use to communicate to each other. The most obvious somatic communication involve the face and the tail. The posture of the ears, eyes, mouth, and tail communicate a lot about a Wolf's mood and intentions:

Happy: ears in a neutral or slightly laid back posture, forehead smooth with brows slightly raised, eyes relaxed or wide, muzzle relaxed, jaw dropped, may be panting, pelt relaxed or slightly bristled, tail in a neutral low swayed-back position or somewhat lifted and wagging.

Neutral: ears raised or foreword, forehead and brows relaxed, eyes relaxed, muzzle relaxed, mouth closed or slightly agape, may be panting in warm weather, pelt relaxed, tail carried low, may be straight out or raised in a dominant Wolf.

Depressed: ears are down or back, forehead may be furrowed, eyes are downcast, muzzle is neutral, lips seem to hang down, pelt is neutral, tail hangs straight down or my slightly curve along the outside of a hip.

Anxious: ears lay flat but outward, forehead is furrowed, eyes are somewhat slit-like and peering, muzzle twitches and lips are pulled back, but not so much that fangs are bared, pelt may be slightly bristled, and tail can take several postures, depending an the nature of anxiety: Up, notched to the side, and somewhat flicking is an imposing attitude; lowered and somewhat notched to the side is often observed while eating; straight down and notched when between uncertain.

Uncertain: ears lay flat, outward and forward, forehead shows definite furrowing with raised brows, eyes are angry and slit-like, muzzle is furrowed and nose is pulled back and puckered, fangs are bared with tongue stuck out between incisors, pelt is bristled, hackles raised, tail is lowered, sometimes tucked. This posture is one of both defense and submissiveness... the Wolf has not decided on fight or flight and is confused.

Threatened/Angry: ears raised and forward, forehead furrowed, eyes wide, wild, and angry, muzzle furrowed with lips lifted high and nose puckered, fangs and even teeth are barred, tongue is tucked back and mostly out of sight, pelt is bristled, hackles are raised, stance is somewhat crouched and ready to leap, tail is straight out or raised, notched or hooked in appearance, with the tip often twitching to one side. All of this Wolf's attention is bearing down on the target and he or she waits only for an opportunity to lunge.

Olfactory

Wolves make continual use of their superior sense of smell; even when communicating amongst themselves. There are scent glands on their cheeks, behind their ears, on their hind paws, the top of their tail, and on their anus. Their scat and especially their urine act as olfactory signals to other Wolves. These bodily scents indicate personal identity, health, mood, and even sexual arousal to members of their pack and other canines abroad.

Wolves have a ritualized greeting where they meet and sniff each other's muzzle, genitals, tail, and anus. This greeting confers a great deal of information about one Wolf to another... much more then mere sight alone. The odors that a Wolf has rubbed against or rolled in also tell others where a he or she has been and doing. The sense of smell also plays a very important role in courtship and pre-coitus arousal.


Taking a Mate

Wolves, both male and female often disperse from their birth pack and wander on their own until the opportunity or urge to take a mate presents itself. Also, a lone male may wander on a packs periphery until able to lure away a young female to seduce... or the female will wander off to tempt him. However dog meets bitch, the greeting ritual is usually tense, as violence is quite possible when two strange Wolves meet each other for the first time; for distrust and suspicion run high on both sides. When seducing a female away from her pack there is always the possibility that pack's alpha dog might take exception to a strange male on his territory and strike out against him before his daughter and the suitor can properly introduce themselves.

Upon greeting, both Wolves stand tensely shoulder to shoulder, with fur bristled, tails out and wagging, and ears erect as they venture a sniff of each others nose and muzzle. As they get to know each other better, there may be some play posturing, and then tail, genital, and anal sniffing. This progresses into romping, running, licking, and nuzzling, by which time the greeting phase fades and courtship begins.

Courtship is a bonding phase whereby a bitch and dog get to know each other intimately and a mutual emotional attachment develops. This bond often becomes so strong that the pair will become lifetime mates. However, unlike the romanticism anthropomorphized by human beings, lifetime relationships are more a thing of opportunity than an absolute. Many things can happen in the wilderness to push even the most mutually dedicated lovers apart; such as rivalry between Wolves, injury, illness, or death. As courting progresses there comes playful attempts to mounting from the front or side, mutual licking of muzzle, anus, and genitals, parallel running which incorporates nuzzling under the other Wolf's jaw or ear, and pricking the ears sideways while together.

If she hasn't already, the bitch soon enters a period of bleeding and frequent urination called proestrus, which lasts for 7 to 10 days during which her vulva will swell significantly. Following proestrus she will enter actual estrus and blood may be replaced by a clear or yellowish discharge having a very erotic effect on the male. Nuzzling or sniffing the croup of her tail while in estrus may cause her to flag; that is, lift her tail up to the side and assuming the "lordosis" posture to entice mounting, intromission, and coitus. Estrus lasts 4 to 7 days during which time the bitch is insistent that her dog mate with her over and over as often as possible. The final stage of estrus is called diestrus, and like proestrus lasts 7 to 10 days. During diestrus the bitch will be unreceptive to mating and may sit down or get grumpy with the dog if he attempts to mount her.

During and after mating the dog and bitch will spend much time, cuddling, playing, and hunting together, until seven or eight weeks have passed when the bitch loses interest in her mate for a while as she prepares the den and whelps their litter of pups 61 to 63 days after conception.


Denning and Whelping

Two or three before a Wolf bitch whelps her puppies, she will sniff around for a place to make a den. If fate allows, she might take up residence in an old den, maybe a foxhole, or rock cave. Well established Wolf packs often use the same denning ground year after year. Carbon dating of bones around a well established den showed that Wolves had used the same site for almost 800 years. Note that it is only during the early spring, when a bitch prepares to whelp and rear the pups, that either she or the pack lingers around the den site. Failing an established den, the bitch will dig her own.

Inexperienced females sometimes dig shallow pits. Rarely a bitch may whelp above ground in the open. In this latter case the pups are usually moved later or may end up dying. Dens are often dug quite large, more than adequate for the bitch and her puppies. With an entrance half a meter (20 inches) wide or more, a tunnel extending 1.5 to 4 meters (6 to 14 feet) leads to a whelping chamber that can be 2 meters (6.5 feet) or more in diameter.

The den is a sacred place and the alpha female won't even allow her mate enter, although she may select an assistant from among the pack's other females to help her rear the pack puppies. Wolves love puppies and the entire pack eventually participates in their care.

When it's time to whelp, the bitch will enter her den and gives birth to her pups. The pups are born about 40 minutes apart; the umbilical cord is chewed off by the mother, the puppy is tongue-groomed clean, and then the placenta is eaten. The average litter size is four to six, but up to eleven have been documented. Pups are born sightless and deaf, and unable to maintain their body temperature independently until about three weeks old. Puppies require a lot of motherly devotion in order to survive. The mortality rate for newborn Wolves making it to yearling is about 60%.

Mom will remain in the den for several days straight, licking and feeding the brood, and only after two or three days leave only briefly for a sip of water. Wolf pups are born quite strong and immediately begin competition with each other to reach mother's nipples. This struggle to suckle also establishes early social ranking. Wolf pups nurse five or six times a day for three to five minutes each feeding.

Pups will usually remain in their den for the first three or four weeks of their lives before mother allows them to venture forth into the light. During this time the mother is quite dependant on her mate and other pack members to bring her food in the form of meat that is often regurgitated for her.


Puppiness

Wolf pups are whelped from late March to early May. In northern climates litters may arrive as late as June, and in Southern climates as early as late February. Litter size ranges form one to eleven puppies; with an average of four to six. In areas where there have been intense activities to eradicate Wolves, average litter sizes tend to increase.Puppies that die during or after birth are usually buried by the mother. Sometimes the mother will carry a dead puppy around in her mouth, showing the little corpse to the members of the pack. It has even been observed where pack members will take turns doing this until someone finally buries the dead puppy. In captivity dead puppies might be eaten, this behavior has never been observed in the wild.


When the pups are born the entire pack is filled with excitement. It is well documented how much adult Wolves love puppies and how every pack member contributes to their care and education. The alpha bitch will not allow any other Wolves to come around when she whelps, not even the alpha male. Later, she might allow a select female to assist her in rearing and nursing the pups. Female Wolves are able to enter "false pregnancy" after estrus if they fail to conceive. While in this condition they lactate and are able to assist the alpha bitch with nursing the puppies.

Wolf puppies are born deaf and with their eyes closed. They have large heads and short thin tails. They tend to be born with dark fur which lightens as they age. When they open their eyes 10 to 13 days after birth, their eyes tend to be a very dark blue, which pails over the next several months until achieving their adult eye color. Adult Wolves very rarely may retain their blue eyes. There is only one example I know of where a captive adult Wolf was known to have blue eyes his entire life.

For the first few weeks, Wolf puppies nurse five or six times a day in feeding sessions lasting three to five minutes each. Wolf pups are weaned at five to eight weeks. During weaning, the puppies are fed regurgitated food brought to them by their pack mates when they return from hunting. The puppies will nuzzle and lick at the adults muzzle and lips to trigger regurgitation. At a couple months of age mothers will move their puppies away from the den site to what some call a "rendezvous site." This area is usually less than an acre in size, is near water, and is a place for the pups to play, romp, harass lazy adults, and learn their initial skills. Gradually the puppies start eating solid food and at twelve weeks begin to accompany adults on hunts.

Wolf puppies grow fast, gaining on average 79% of their body weight and 96% of their overall length in the first year of life. By six months of age the puppies are hard to distinguish from the adults and at eight months have virtually achieved their full grown stature.

Wolf Puppy Development

  • 10-13 days: eyes open
  • 3 weeks: ability to hear. milk teeth appear. start exploring the den
  • 4 weeks: leave the den. begin to eat meat. start to howl
  • 5 weeks: start to travel up to a mile from the den
  • 5-8 weeks: weaning and moved to the "rendezvous site."
  • 12 weeks: start to follow along on hunts
  • 4-7 months: loose milk teeth
  • 7-8 months: start to hunt

The mortality rate for Wolf puppies is very high in the wild. An average of 60% of pups die before reaching a year of age, with the mortality range being 6-80%. Wolves mourn dead puppies. There have been documented occurrences of males raising puppies by themselves after their mate has been killed. Wolves understand the importance of family, and love each other just as a human family might.

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