The wolf and the wolf pack: a perfect mechanism of social organisation

When you come to understand the inner workings of a wolf pack, the idea that only man is capable of living in a perfect social structure seems somewhat pretentious. Leaving aside the gang-like connotations that the word ‘pack’ brings to mind, in reality, the wolf pack is a multitude that unites to protect each member. Each wolf accepts its unique position in the pack, just like a family member does.

Structure and leadership of the pack

A pack of wolves usually comprises a dominant (alpha) pair; an individual or a couple following in importance, and most likely to replace the current alphas (referred to as the beta pair); next in line, are individuals in the middle ranks, these are followed by one or more wolves of the lowest (omega) rank. The alpha pair commands the whole group, while the beta pair directs the mid-level wolves, and the adults take charge of the remaining pack members in the middle and lower ranks. While the two extremes of the pack hierarchy tend not to vary, except in cases of injury or death, the average rank is more socially dynamic. The wolf pups remain outside this complex ranking system until the age of sexual maturity, while females always play second fiddle to males of equal rank.

As befits a leader, the dominant wolf exhibits an attitude and stance to match his status – standing tall, with head and tail held high and ears erect. The alpha also demands important privileges – such as the right to feast on prey ahead of other members of the pack. Less dominant wolves will act submissively towards the alpha; licking their leader’s muzzle, often lowering their bodies and positioning their heads, tails and ears lower the higher-ranking pack member. Far more challenging however is life of the omega wolf. Their role is to act as the ‘social glue’, providing light relief within the volatile pack by promoting periods of play, and calming the others in times of conflict. The omega often plays the role of the scapegoat, regularly tolerating a lack of consideration from the rest of the pack. They are also usually the last to be allowed to feed.

The myth of the lone wolf

There are often conflicts within the ranks, and sometimes a wolf is driven from the pack or leaves of its own accord – becoming a so-called ‘lone wolf’. However just like the old saying, ‘there is power in numbers’ goes, although wolves can, and do, hunt alone, they are much more successful when hunting collectively as a team because they work together as one, intelligent unit to take down their prey. The pack is also essential to give meaning to the existence of the animals. Just like a family, the wolf pack is a social unit; and it’s that lack of social belonging and structure, which the lone wolf endures, that means its solitary life does not hold the charm often ascribed to it. It is a difficult, lonely existence, and a constant fight for survival.

The thought of wolves hunting in a pack can understandably evoke feelings of fear and anxiety. However, it is this very act of collaboration – working towards a common objective of self-preservation – as well as their complex community structure, and use of body language and howls to covey the rules of the pack, that causes us to pause and reflect on the magnitude of their intelligence and the depth of their emotions.