Study of the wolf or canis lupus and ‘conservation’
Wolves have been studied especially in Yellowstone National Park, Montana, Idaho, Alaska and Quebec. Older studies date from 1944 by Young and Goldman, in 1970 by Mech’s, in 1999 by David Douglas and others and later in 2003, by L. David Mech and Luigi Boitani. Finally, after so many years of study, we are getting a clearer picture of the wolf. This has an impact on the image of the wild dog and our domesticated dog. There is an increasing need for knowledge and understanding and there is also an increasing trend for tolerance of this magnificent animal. People want to put more effort in terms of protection and ‘conservation’ of the wolf.
This ‘conservation strategy’ consists of:
Putting aside old prejudices
People and wolves living alongside each other: rethinking territories
Enlarging the natural habitat of the wolf thus indirectly increasing population
Objective study of the wolf
The wolf family
Wolves can survive in various environments; tundra, desert, village outskirts, countryside, mountains, national parks… They can live in groups of up to 42 animals or they can live alone. The breeding pair form the basis of the pack. The breeding pair can fluctuate, sometimes just one male and one female, sometimes one male and two females or even two related males and a female. In general a litter of cubs will be born each year and the young will stay with the pack for the first four years or so of their lives, learning how to survive and supporting the pack. The young wolves stay even longer if there is enough food available. So when food is plentiful we usually find that the wolf pack is larger than in times of scarcity.
Sometimes lone wolves will try to join a pack, usually males under the age of three. This often occurs in the period between February and May. They may be allowed to join, when for example an older wolf has died or if a young female requires a mate. If they are not accepted by the pack they will be driven away or even killed.
Potential breeding pairs are formed by:
Cubs born into the pack that wait as pack members or sometimes remain somewhere in the territory until the loss of a parent gives them to possibility to take their place.
Multiple parenting, wolves that are related (mother and daughter for example) help each other with the care and upbringing of the cubs.
Wolves sometimes leave their own pack to form a new family group.
A young wolf will challenge and usurp the position of one of the parents (this is often seen among captive wolves).
Multiple breeding, budding and splitting.
When there are several couples in the same pack that reproduce this is known as multiple breeding. The females are often genetically related, for example mother and daughter. Incest is rare both in the wild and in captivity and is usually only a last resort. A pack will rather adopt a newcomer or young wolves will leave to set up their own family. A newcomer to the pack can be a partner for a younger female but can also take the place of the male or female of the principal breeding pair if one of the pair is dead. In this case the new wolf can choose their mate, creating a new breeding pair. In time the pack may change from a single breeding pair to multiple breeding.
Wolves may sometimes leave their original pack (with a new partner) and go and live on the edge of their native territory. This is known as budding. If an individual or a group splits off from the original pack and goes in search of a new territory, it is called splitting. The reason for splitting may be temporary because the pack has become too big or because food is scarce. Splitting will often occur during the breeding season.
The search for a new territory can be undertaken alone, with a partner or with a small group. Sometimes the territory is “definitive” and that is called ‘settling’. Otherwise they move from territory to territory, depending on the available food. The wolves will sometimes find a new territory close to their original pack or they may range far afield. The new territory may overlap with that of another pack or it may be an uninhabited area or two packs may even join up. Sometimes two packs ‘cooperate’ against the threat of a 3rd pack. A wolf may even enter into a kind of affiliation or association with more than one pack and for example will help with the care of the cubs in two packs. This can frequently change, because a pack is a dynamic whole. The chosen strategy depends on:
The size of the group
Competition within a pack
During the mating season the young wolves scatter like leaves in the wind.
Why do wolves choose to live in a pack?
A wolf is linked to his pack in the same way as a child is linked to his family. The young remain for between 10 and 54 months with the pack, which is longer than most mammals remain with their parents. In a study by Seal it was shown that wolves are sometimes only psychologically mature when they are 5 years old and some will not mate and have cubs until they are three or older. The parents want to ensure their ‘investment’ and teach their children how to survive. The cubs grow up in the family, learning from the parents and helping with the upbringing of siblings … until they can stand on their own feet.
Wolves hunt large prey such as bison and deer and for this to be successful they need to work as a pack. Not every wolf can participate in the hunt, other tasks are also shared. Moreover, the hunt depends on the season; in winter the group will be nomadic and usually the whole pack joins in the hunt, during the summer months when there are young then the wolves will hunt for smaller prey in the area around their den. Sometimes the pack splits and hunts in different areas, the larger the pack, the better for hunting but at the same time the individual share for each wolf is reduced. The very young cubs are given priority over other youngsters when it comes to sharing the food (study by LD Mech). If food is plentiful then younger pack members will remain with the group until they are ready to mate and are able to hunt for themselves. In this way successful inherited genes are passed on.
The third reason is that they can live together in a territory and so find peace and stability.
Survival and aggression
There are three things a wolf needs in order to survive:
Exclusive area (territory)
A wolf will therefore be prepared to show aggression in order to obtain these basics for survival, the territory, the food supply (especially if the pack is too large and food is scarce) and a mate. The latter is called sexual aggression and starts from puberty.
The dog is descended from the wolf
Research has shown that the DNA of the wolf or canis lupus is 99.96% similar to that of dogs (John Bradshaw – ‘This is the dog’ 2012). The similarities are more striking when comparing the European wolf rather than the original American timber wolf. Interestingly humans and dogs share 25% identical DNA as both are mammals. To better understand our dogs we can study the wolf, but we also need to study the domestic dog, because dogs are now more successful than wolves (example, overall population). They are more flexible and have adapted better to the different conditions (survival of the fittest Darwin) enabling them to co-exist with humans.
Darwin spoke about natural selection:
Adaptation to the environment or finding niche. A niche is a very suitable area in which many resources are available.
Evolution in terms of shape so as to form a new (sub) species. This is called speciation
Behaviour and DNA determine which animals thrive, a successful species will adapt to environmental factors. An example of the influence of environmental factors can be seen when we look at chimpanzees and bonobos. They share 99.6% of the same genetic material but differ widely when it comes to social behaviour. Chimpanzees are omnivores and show quite aggressive behaviour and bonobos are more peaceful and herbivores. Wolves and dogs are part of the same family, Canidae, as are the fox, jackal, coyote and the dingo.
Dogs and wolves may be from the same family but dogs are no more real wolves than we humans, although primates, are monkeys. So the dog possesses dog-like characteristics and has been successfully domesticated and has split into different breeds (or mutations?) making for better and stronger dogs (better, stronger?) This domestication of the wild wolf happened gradually, generally with male wolves mating with female domesticated dogs. The wolf like characteristics decreased with these matings but also in part because humans fulfilled the needs of the dogs and took on the role of pack leader. Because of human migration dogs from different continents mated with each other and the canine gene pool was mixed. So different wolves and a long domestication process plus a mix of different genes AND adaptation to environmental factors and their relationship with humans, makes the dog a descendant of only a small portion of the original wolf population that chose to live alongside humans.
Important differences between dogs and wolves
There are significant differences; dogs are friendly towards people and have different physical characteristics. They often live in a group with members that are unrelated. Dogs have neoteny, this is a phenomenon that stops the growth in some parts of the body, while other parts grow normally. An example would be the flat muzzle. An adult dog can be perceived as remaining in the juvenile phase of the wolf despite being sexually mature earlier than the wolf and with bitches coming into season more than once a year. Dogs tend to be more opportunistic in terms of sex and partners. Wolves are in tune with the seasons and the availability of food and a safe location will affect the reproductive cycle. Dogs bark and wolves howl. Wolf cubs are totally dependent on their parents, they cannot feed themselves and they need protection in the wilderness.
Wolf families and dog families
Nowadays with the help of technical gadgets such as the gps we are able to study wolves living in the wild rather than wolves kept in captivity. We are able to get a better picture of the social structure of the wolf pack. In the past there has been a lot of misunderstanding and wolves were even depicted as despotic tyrants. Like dogs, wolves live in a small group or a pack. The wolf pack is primarily a family group that works together rather than a pack dominated by a leader. A group that is related has a genetic advantage. The need to educate and raise the young family members will tend to limit the reproductive urge. The young wolves need to learn how to stand on their own feet and possibly lead their own family. Family members help each other and there is limited rivalry. Calming signals help avoid confrontation within the pack. These calming signals and other ritual behaviour such as licking and keeping a low body posture are not signs of submission but a confirmation of respect and affection. We see no tyrannical behaviour from the breeding pair but an orderly and harmonious family group. The “alpha status” is rooted in parenthood. Wolves in captivity are often not related to each other and this may be the cause of conflicts. They cannot avoid each other or leave to find a different territory. In captivity the alpha state is obtained by the extrovert, the winner of fights, the one that can assign tasks and delegate…
We see two types of “submission” (ethology).
- Active submission, such as licking the mouth, taking a low posture … is affiliative and seen more in the wild.
- Passive submission, eg. Lying on the back, is a possible signal of true submission, and seen more in captivity. These are attempts to temper aggression. The family model evolves naturally; the alpha model was created artificially in social groups.
Dogs are better wolves
The world is full of dogs. Dogs have adapted successfully and propagated worldwide. There are only about 300 000 wolves left and their number is rapidly decreasing. Wolves need to be protected; they even need to be protected from dogs to avoid interbreeding. In addition to the population of pet dogs, there are a very large number of wild dogs. These wild dogs are very successful and breed easily (Read my article about wild dogs).
Here are a number of questions that I would like to suggest for discussion:
Which type of wolf behaviour still has an impact on our dog?
What about solitary wolves?
What about, for example, the fox, which is also solitary?
Can a solitary dog survive? Would the basic needs of the animal be met?
What about ‘domination’ in dogs?