The wolf pack: sharp teeth and strong family units © Getty Images

The wolf pack: sharp teeth and strong family units

Wolves aren't the sharp-toothed, snarling group of hunters we once believed, and may in fact parallel some of our human family behaviours.

Even though our distant African ancestors probably encountered Cape hunting dogs and allied species that also hunt in well-organised packs, when they first arrived in Europe some 40,000 to 50,000 years ago they would have seen at first hand the hunting strategy of the grey wolf and perhaps even begun to emulate it. Although humans and wolves had little else in common, the ability to cooperate within a close-knit family group was very strong in both species.

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The basic social unit is the wolf pack. It is almost an organism in its own right, separate from the individual members and whose survival as a unit is paramount. A wolf that finds itself excluded, excommunicated from the pack must find another one and be accepted into it or face starvation and an early death.

A typical pack is an extended family of around half a dozen related individuals. Occasionally packs of thirty wolves are reliably reported, but the hundreds-strong ‘super packs’ gleefully reported in the press make for good copy but are highly suspicious. A typical example, such as this one from MailOnline, states ‘according to reports … a state of emergency was declared when the eastern Siberian town of Verkhoyansk on the banks of the Yana river was surrounded by four hundred ravenous wolves who killed thirty of the village’s horses leaving the terrified villagers wondering whether they would be next on the menu.’ This story plays to our deep-seated fear of wolves which, together with our terror of the dark, deep forests and dangerous predators is another aspect of the Palaeolithic archetype which is part of our make-up even today.

How did humans tame wolves? © iStock

Life in the wolf pack is much more prosaic. As we have seen, there is usually just one breeding pair in each pack, the alpha pair, and breeding takes place only once a year, in February or March, with cubs being born after 63 days. Litters are usually between four and six, but the number varies depending on the availability of food. In good years there might be up to a dozen pups in a litter, while in lean years the alpha pair may not breed at all.

Pups are born deaf and blind. They can hear after a few days, open their eyes about 10 days later and are weaned at five weeks. By this time they have ventured outside the den, but they stay close to the entrance while they play. The play begins to establish the all-important social order within the litter that, though it changes many times, underlies the ultimate organisation of the pack. Dog owners and breeders will recognise many of the same milestones.

While we see ample demonstrations of love and devotion in a mother’s treatment of her cubs, it is underscored by the ruthless discipline of the wild. Any cub showing signs of physical disability will be killed, and even eaten. Each of these measures, the hormonal regulation of litter size according to the abundance of prey and the elimination of the weak and disabled, is there to protect the survival of the pack.

So too is the interest the other adults show in the alpha female’s cubs and the affection the youngsters give in return. Unlike in many other species, adults make no attempt to take food given to growing pups, and within the pack there is a strong sense of respect for the social order.

This is reminiscent of the way many social insects like bees and ants behave where the lives of the workers, all sterile, are completely devoted to the survival of the alpha female’s, the Queen’s, offspring. The evolutionary explanation for this altruism is that even though the workers have no offspring of their own, their efforts to support their sister, the Queen, help to ensure that their DNA flows through to the next generation.

As with the beehive, the wolf pack is at heart an extended family. Austrian zoologist, ethologist, and ornithologist Konrad Lorenz, a keen observer of dog behaviour, interpreted the altruism of the wolf pack as marking the beginning of a primitive sense of morality. The strong sense of family shown by the wolf, and shared, albeit clumsily, by ourselves, lies at the heart of the unexpectedly close relationship our ancestors managed to develop with this wild creature and which some of us continue to enjoy with our pets.

Most research on wolf behaviour especially in the early days was carried out on captive animals confined to an area only a fraction the size of natural territory. These animals were fed every day, so did not need to hunt, neither were they necessarily related to each other as is the case in the wild. John Bradshaw from the University of Bristol specialises in the behaviour of dogs. He has come to think that the commonly held view of a rigidly enforced dominance hierarchy within wolf packs is seriously distorted simply because the animals observed in captivity are unrelated.

Captive animals tend to be more aggressive towards each other than generally seen in the wild, and this is no surprise in Bradshaw’s view. Basing theories about pack behaviour on captive wolves would be like inferring all the subtleties of normal human interactions from the behavior of long-term prison inmates.

According to Bradshaw this misinterpretation of pack behaviour, in particular the role of the ‘alpha male’, is responsible for some of the more distasteful methods of dog training, often involving physical punishment. Adolph Murie, the first biologist properly to study wolves in their natural arctic habitat, was left with the impression that first and foremost wolves within a pack were friendly to one another. Unlike captive wolves, they absolutely have to get along to survive.

© Getty Images
While we see ample demonstrations of love and devotion in a mother’s treatment of her cubs, any cub showing signs of physical disability will be killed, and even eaten © Getty Images

Although there is a harsh side to discipline, it does not detract from the amicable and mutually supportive relations that are the fundamental adhesives of the pack. Although the structure within a pack is fluid and can change with time and circumstance, there are two separate hierarchies. The alpha female and the alpha male take precedence over the others of their sex and although it was once thought that they formed the only breeding pair it now emerges that although the alpha female is the only animal to have young it is not always the alpha male that is the father. Again, rather loosely, precedence is signalled by a variety of postures and gestures and generally, but not always, the alpha animals are the first to feed at a kill.

The myth of the alpha male who must never be challenged has become an easily recognised caricature of our human society but is based, at least in part, on our distorted impression of the social order of the wolf pack. It is the alpha female that has the greatest say. She selects the victim and directs the hunt. The beta animals are the ones that enforce the will of the alpha female, for example by challenging the prey to help her gauge its fitness. Shortly before the cubs are born, the pack converges near the denning site chosen by the pregnant female, to help out. They bring her food and, after the pups are weaned, they take over responsibility for teaching them the ways of the pack.

The parallels with our own family lives are striking, and therein lies the root of the bond between the two species. The wolf has by necessity honed its social arrangements to fit its method of cooperative hunting, and this spills over into their family life in ways we find very familiar. When our Palaeolithic ancestors first encountered the grey wolf in Europe they saw a wild animal that behaved on the hunt much as they did themselves. …

The alliance our ancestors forged with the wolf was an event of seminal importance in human evolution and ranks with the other innovations such as the bow and arrow, the spear-thrower and the flowering of art and music. All these things secured our ancestors’ survival through the harshest conditions of the Ice Age.

Adapted from The Wolf Within: The Astonishing Evolution of the Wolf into Man’s Best Friend by  Professor Bryan Sykes (£20, Williams Collins)

Adapted from The Wolf Within: The Astonishing Evolution of the Wolf into Man’s Best Friend by  Professor Bryan Sykes (£20, Williams Collins)

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