The term ‘alpha’ with regard to wolves exists for a long time. But where does it come from?
At the end of the ’60, David Mech wrote his book ‘The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species’. He based this book on one of the most important studies done on the behaviour of wolves in captivity by Rudolph Schenkel. Mech took the term ‘alpha wolf’ from Schenkels’ study.
Most books and studies on wolves that were written after Mechs book, were for a large part based on the information published in this standard of Mech. This is how the term ‘alpha’ became commonplace.
In the course of time, when more and more studies were done about the behaviour of wolves in the wild, it turned out how wrong the assumption of the former researchers was; they assumed a wolf pack was formed by a number of random individuals, who would meet up in the winter so they can hunt for larger prey animals. From that idea, for researche on the social behaviour of wolves, different wolves from different zoos were put together in a new group. If a random group of animals is composite in an artificial way, you get a battle on the power, and in the end a hierarchy that is maintained with difficulty. There you go; the alpha wolf and the inexorable ranking.
Nowadays scientists don’t see a wolf pack as a group of animals whit one absolute leader (or leading pair) that fought his way to the top, but they have detected that most wolf packs are nothing more than family groups who are shaped in the same way human families are shaped; parents with their offspring who, when grown up, leave the family, then wander around a bit until they have found a partner and a territory that isn’t occupied yet and that has enough prey, to there start their own family.
The parents have, pertaining to their children, an evident, natural leading role – ‘leading’ in the meaning of ‘guiding’, and nót ‘predominate’.
In 1999, Mech published his Article Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs, in which he officially corrected the wrong information in the scientific literature, and in 2000 he got into this in a second article, Leadership in Wolf, Canis lupus, Packs. Unfortunately, on average, it takes 20 years before new scientific insights are completely accepted.
David Mech explains on his website:
"The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years then in all of previous history.
One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.” In the rare packs that include more than one breeding animal, the “dominant breeder” can be called that, and any breeding daughter can be called a “subordinate breeder.”
Sources I used for this article:
- Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs by David Mech
- Leadership in Wolf, Canis lupus, Packs by David Mech