A typical wolf pack consists of a breeding pair and their offspring, including young and mature wolves that have not yet set off on their own.
Wolf Pack Meaning
A wolf pack is essentially a family, says Doug Smith, the wildlife biologist who runs it program to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone and launched Yellowstone Wolf Projectan initiative that over the years has led to extensive research on wolves.
Despite common images of wolves as ruthless and vicious, wolf families are mostly functional. Wolves in a pack work together, play together, and care for each other when they are sick or injured. Wolves are especially devoted to their young. The entire pack helps care for the young, Smith explains.
When the cubs are small, the older wolves bring food back to base camp for the cubs to eat. In spring, when young are born, prolactin — a hormone that triggers grooming — increases for all pack members, explains Kira Cassidy, a wildlife biologist who studies pack behavior with the Yellowstone Wolf Project. This creates what she calls a “compulsion” to bring food to the cubs and to nursing mothers who cannot yet leave the youngest members of the pack.
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When they have no food to return, wolves bring toys – feathers, bones, skins of dead animals – for the cubs to play with. Cassidy remembers seeing an adult carrying an orange cone into the cub’s den.
It’s a rough life
Outside of family units, however, life for wolves can get rough. Wolves are very territorial and a fight between packs can be deadly. In areas where wolves are protected from humans, the leading cause of wolf mortality is other wolves, Smith said.
But when humans kill wolves, those deaths can cause more damage than simply reducing the wolf population. In a recent study, Cassidy, Smith, and colleagues found that packs in which individuals killed pack leaders were more likely to disband within biological year than were packs that did not suffer such losses. The i study published in February 2023 in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environmentanalyzed 118 years of data from five national parks.
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The leader of the wolf pack
The reasons for the devastating effects of losing a pack leader are quite clear. “When you realize that packs live in these family groups,” says Cassidy, “you understand what it would be like to lose a mother or a father.”
She points out that a pack can stay together after losing one of its cubs, even an older one. But losing a leader is different. Wolves learn from older packmates. According to Cassidy, the leaders teach the younger wolves what prey is suitable to hunt, how to avoid roads and most of the things they need to know to survive. Younger wolves do not receive this training if the pack loses its leader.
The five-park study did not compare human-caused mortality with wolf-versus-wolf mortality, said Joseph Bump, one of the study’s authors, as well as one of the founders of the University of Minnesota The Voyageurs Wolf project. “We need to continue to ask the question, ‘Is human pack disruption different from other causes of disruption?’ Because causes of mortality that do not involve humans can affect packs in much the same way,” he says.
Still, there are reasons to believe that human-caused mortality may have a greater effect, if for no other reason than that humans are likely to kill larger and more experienced wolves. “Hunters choose the biggest wolves to shoot,” says Smith. “It’s usually an old man, an older, wiser wolf who has survived some battles.” And these wolves, remember, are the ones who teach the younger ones how and what to hunt.
The strength of the wolf is the pack
Although there is not much data on this, it is possible that pack disruption due to the loss of a leader could potentially exacerbate conflicts with humans. “There are wolf packs that have access to cattle and sheep, but they don’t hunt them,” says Bump. He asks us to imagine that the pack loses an individual who does 40 percent of the pack’s kills. The resulting nutritional stress may cause the surviving members of the pack to start hunting domestic animals.
Another scenario described by Bump is a pack losing an older, experienced member who was good at inter-pack interactions. The loss of this wolf could mean the pack loses territory and is pushed into areas with less prey and perhaps more people and their livestock.
The results of killing wolves, at the hands of humans or otherwise, are complex. But one thing is clear: if we want to understand how to protect and coexist with wolves, we need to understand how our actions affect wolves at the pack level, not just the population level. We need to get to know the family.
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