Alpha Wolves: It’s a Myth!

By Shlomo Maital

     In the latest edition of the Science Friday podcast, guest host Maddie Sofia spoke with Dr. Dave Mech, a research scientist at the US Geological Survey and author of the 1970 bookThe Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species.     His book contained passages about the alpha wolf:  the ‘top dog’ that claws its way to the top of the pack and leads it.  Ultimately this became a symbol for human power and dominance.

     Over 25 years ago, the myth of the alpha wolf was debunked.  It is simply not true.  Wolf packs are formed when a male wolf mates with a female, and they have pups.  The male and female are the ‘alphas’, by genetics not by ‘tooth and claw’, and their offspring are privileged, when other wolves without the elite genes join the pack.  (Sound a bit like business dynasties?).  Hyena packs and spotted dogs in Africa work that way too.

     Yet the alpha wolf notion survives and thrives.  Why?  It’s a kind of anthropomorphism – attributing human characteristics to, for example animals.  Humans may behave that way, and hence choose to attribute it to wolves as well. 

      Maybe humans should aspire to resemble wolves.  Building a strong, loving family  is a whole lot different from the false theory of tooth-and-claw competition to lead.    Dr. Mech continues his study of wolves (specifically, the fascinating reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, which has done amazing positive things to the ecology) and of course recognizes the debunking of alpha wolves.