Evolutionary studies show that wolf ancestors first appeared 60 million years ago. A fun fact is that all domestic dogs are descended from wolves. As much as you hear the phrase “lone wolf”, it is actually rare for a wolf to be alone. Wolves belong to groups called “packs” that on average have 10 members but can range from anywhere between 2 and 30 wolves. A wolf pack’s range can be very large, up to 600 miles. Each pack has an alpha pair, male and female wolf. They are not necessarily the biggest, meanest, or most aggressive wolves as one may think, but they have leadership skills that hold the pack together. They have the freedom to roam where they please and the rest of the pack will follow.
A pack is formed when a male and female bond and breed a litter of pups. Although other wolves in the pack can bear pups, they often don’t or fail to raise their own pups to maturity. Each wolf in the pack helps raise pups. Ranking in a wolf pack is very important. The alpha pair has the most freedom in the pack. There will be several subordinate wolves and in larger packs. There may be “beta” wolves or second in commands. In every pack there is an Omega, the lowest ranking wolf that receives the most aggression from other wolves and usually assumes a scout role. If a wolf is truly alone it is most likely an Omega scouting, or perhaps even kicked out of the pack and if it is lucky trying to start it’s own pack. Rank is established by ritual fights described as “bluff fights” because it is largely a psychological battle to see which wolf recedes position first. Rank therefore is established more on personality and attitude rather than strength.
If an alpha dies, the other alpha will find a new mate to be the new alpha.
Wolves are most laid back in the summer when primary focus is raising pups. They become more aggressive in the fall when pups are establishing ranks and other wolves are competing for higher positions and older wolves may be stepping back for the first time. Social behavior is also determined by the food supply. Wolves are more aggressive when they are hungry and low food supply may weaken bonds to each other in the pack. Wolves show disperser tendencies as subordinate wolves will sometimes leave or be driven out of the pack where they will then search to join a new pack or find another wolf to start a new pack. Wolves regulate their pack size by allowing neighboring wolves to join their packs when they have deserters. Wolves mark territory with their urine and feces called scent marking and when outside wolves smell their scent they know the territory is occupied.
Wolves howl for several reasons. One reason is to communicate over great distances and in thick forests. Howling also can signal to summon the rest of the pack to a location. Howling may also serve as a means to fend off rivals. A dominant wolf may howl to warn outside wolves not to wander into its territory. Usually this type of howling is done if the pack has something to protect such as a fresh kill. Wolves may even “sing.” They sing together to strengthen social bonds and build camaraderie. When singing, they will howl at different tones and pitches, which can make it hard to determine how many wolves are howling. A rival pack may hesitate to enter territory if they are unsure how many wolves are in the pack. Wolves most often howl at the twilight hours before a hunt and also when returning from a hunt.
Wolves and other animals
A wolf’s strength is in its numbers. Wolves have to share land with bears, cougars, coyotes, foxes, and sometimes humans. Wolves will chase bears away from their dens because bears can eat their pups. Coyotes try to avoid wolves but when they do encounter each other the coyote gets very aggressive, probably to find an opening to run away or make the wolves decide not waste energy. Foxes might steal wolf kills and wolves may steal fox dens. More often than not, wolves will simply ignore foxes except in the arctic, where food is scarce. Wolves have learned that birds, such as ravens and crows, will follow them to pick at their food. Wolves know to watch for circling birds as an indicator that there may be food.
Wolves are badass. There is a reason there are so many tales of the big bad wolf and spiritual omens relating to wolves. They are true warriors of the forest and always roam freely.