The idea that wolf packs are led by a merciless dictator, or alpha wolf, comes from old studies of captive wolves. In the wild, wolf packs are simply families
By Stephanie Pappas on February 28, 2023
If you’ve ever heard the term “alpha wolf,” you might imagine snapping fangs and fights to the death for dominance. The idea that wolf packs are led by a merciless dictator is pervasive, lending itself to a shorthand for a kind of dominant masculinity.
But it turns out that this is a myth, and in recent years wildlife biologists have largely dropped the term “alpha.” In the wild, researchers have found that most wolf packs are simply families, led by a breeding pair, and bloody duels for supremacy are rare.
Mech, like many wildlife biologists, once used terms such as alpha and beta to describe the pecking order in wolf packs. But now they are decades out of date, he says. This terminology arose from research done on captive wolf packs in the mid-20th century—but captive packs are nothing like wild ones, Mech says.
When keeping wolves in captivity, humans typically throw together adult animals with no shared kinship. In these cases, a dominance hierarchy arises, Mech adds, but it’s the animal equivalent of what might happen in a human prison, not the way wolves behave when they are left to their own devices.