Alpha, Wolf Packs & Therians
The first letter in the Greek Alphabet (as I’m sure we all know). Alpha has taken on many connotations over time, from types of social personalities to individuals in canine (and primate) groups. I will discuss here, the context of Alpha in Wolf packs versus Therian groups.
Other keywords to understand: Hierarchy, Dominance Hierarchy, Family/Familial Hierarchy Beta, Omega.
Outmoded notion of the alpha wolf
The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years then in all of previous history.
One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.” In the rare packs that include more than one breeding animal, the “dominant breeder” can be called that, and any breeding daughter can be called a “subordinate breeder.”
It’s important to understand that while wolves can and do organize themselves in a sort of Dominance Hierarchy, where the Alpha(s) is the highest rank in all ways and reaches said rank through leading, posturing and fighting, this behavior is only seen under special circumstances such as a group of [usually] unrelated individuals (captive bred or captured from the wild) being forced to live together or some other form of human involvement/intervention.
In the wild, it is incredibly rare for Dominance based Hierarchy to form naturally, but when it does it usually involves a large number of wolves (Example: See the Druid Wolf Pack of Yellowstone National Park), with the average pack being only 6-7 individuals, these packs can number 10 to 20 or more.
Large packs can be a good sign regarding the environment, and resources (like food/prey animals). These [super] packs do not last long. Disease spreads faster in large groups, resources run out quickly with more mouths to feed, and excessive infighting can result smaller alliances, and death of those subordinate individuals.
Natural wolf packs, instead, tend to be simply a family group utilizing a simple Family or Familial Hierarchy. In this structure, the head of the group is the breeding pair, or mother and father. The subordinates being their older and younger offspring.
For additional research and helpful information:
- And of course, always feel empowered to conduct your own research to form your own informed opinions and build your knowledge.
Other Common “ranks”
Beta – When applicable, this is often the second in command filled by the eldest offspring, sibling of the alpha or simply the strongest (but not stronger than the alpha) of the group. Behavior and duties include lending aid to the alphas, existing as replacement to the alphas should they die, can’t perform their duties or otherwise turn up MIA (Missing In Action).
Omega – When applicable, The lowest rank. Sometimes a “jokester”, playful adult, and playmate for youngsters. Often the scapegoat and living punching bag to relieve stress and frustration of all other members of the group. Omegas can be/do get bullied to death or run out of the group.
There are at least two types of social groups for Therians. These are Packs and Howls.
Howls are simply meet-up groups. These individuals gather at regular intervals (weekly, monthly, annually, etc.) for various reasons. Some reasons might include (but not limited to) Discussion of Therianthropy itself, Discussion of the Online/Offline community, Discussion of personal Therianthropy, other fun or serious community-building events… I may get more into detail about Howls another time.
Packs are usually groups of Therians that form for the purpose of socialization and belonging. At it’s core, it’s just a friendship group. Some however take a more serious or professional purpose (more common for older/adult groups), gaining a title and recognized reputation. They might regularly organize Howls, community service, education and/or other events. Others might form for more relaxed and common purposes (more common for 20-and-under crowds) such as roleplaying, going to the mall, not being alone in school, etc. Many of the “fun” or “young” packs are online-only groups, whereas “serious” or “adult” groups might be more likely to have an offline presence as well.
Ranks in Therian Packs are sometimes applied under a bit of ignorance (lack of knowledge) by those who may be attempting to resemble real wolf packs, without an accurate working knowledge of how wolf packs actually operate in the wild. Ranks are otherwise applied with careless intent. Some use them purely for aesthetic appeal (to seem cool), others have expressed or suppressed need to be in-charge, in-power or control others. Some express a desire or need to care for others.
Social order happens naturally. Reasons for using ranks and labels for Therian social groups can be as varied as the individuals themselves, but humans have a need for labels, and so by following the example of other Therian Packs, or a loose understanding of wolf packs (or other animal social groups) many Therian groups apply ranks to their individual members sometimes with roles and duties included, sometimes not.
In Summary and Conclusion
Dominance based hierarchy is not common of natural and wild wolves. Alpha with the connotation of being the biggest, smartest, fastest, the best, the top dog, etc. Does not apply to these packs. Instead, natural and wild wolves breed, and build families. The leaders are purely the mother and father. Subordinates are their offspring.
Cases in which wolves express dominance hierarchy almost always come from those unrelated groups forced together in captivity or other wild groups that have had some other human involvement.
Therian groups are not wolf packs and will likely share a majority of their characteristics (social structure/order) with that of other human social groups and many ill-informed or ignorant might attempt to model their packs after misunderstandings of wolf packs.
Additional Quick Facts
While wolves and domestic dogs are most commonly associated with hierarchy-based group structure, but plenty of other animals utilize such social hierarchical orders (some dominance-ruled others not). Some examples are (but not limited to): Humans, Baboons, Chickens, Hyenas, Meerkats, African wild dogs, Gorillas, orcas. – Pretty much any social species uses some method of organization within their groups, sometimes it is dominance run, other times it’s sex based, and so on.
Wolves usually mate for life.
When a young wolf reaches sexual maturity (adulthood for most animals), 2 years old for females and 3 years old for males, they will leave their natal (birth) pack willingly or be kicked out by their parents to find a single mate and start their own pack (family).
Wolf pups are born with blue eyes. No pureblood adult wolf has blue eyes.
Most black-colored wolves (seen in Grey/Timber and Red wolf subspecies) are likely to be descended from a wolf-dog hybrid.
Wolves only have four toes (and no dew claw) on their back paws.
Wolves don’t howl at the moon, they angle their heads to the sky to give their howl as much distance as possible, to be heard from other wolves (packmates, rival packs, roaming bachelors/bachelorettes, etc.).
Barking/yipping is rare in wolves and only used as a warning.