A typical wolf pack consists of a breeding pair and their offspring, including young and adult wolves that have not yet left on their own.
Meaning of the wolf pack
A wolf pack is essentially a family, says Doug Smith, a wildlife biologist who led the program to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone and launched the Yellowstone Wolf Projectan initiative that over the years has produced a large body of research on wolves.
Despite common images of wolves as ruthless and vicious, wolf families are mostly functional. Wolves in a pack work together, play together, and care for each other when they are sick or injured. Wolves are especially devoted to their young. The whole pack helps take care of the puppies, Smith says.
When the pups are young, the older wolves bring food back to base camp for the little ones to eat. In the spring, when the young are born, prolactin — a hormone that triggers caregiving — increases for all pack members, says Kira Cassidy, a wildlife biologist who studies pack behavior with the Yellowstone Wolf Project. This creates what she calls a “compulsion” to bring food to the puppies and nursing mothers who cannot yet leave the younger members of the pack.
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When they have no food to fetch, the wolves bring toys — feathers, bones, skins from dead animals — with which the little ones can play. Cassidy remembers seeing an adult bring an orange traffic cone into the puppy den.
It’s a hard life
Outside of family units, however, life for wolves can get tough. Wolves are very territorial and fights between packs can be deadly. In areas where wolves are protected from humans, the main cause of wolf mortality is other wolves, Smith says.
But when humans kill wolves, those deaths can cause more damage than just reducing the wolf population. In a recent study, Cassidy, Smith and their colleagues found that packs in which humans killed pack leaders were more likely to dissolve into the pack. biological year than packs that had not suffered such losses. THE study, published in February 2023 in the journal Borders of ecology and environmentanalyzed 118 years of data from five national parks.
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The leader of the wolf pack
The reasons for the devastating effects of losing a pack leader are pretty clear. “When you realize packs live in these family groups,” Cassidy says, “you realize how much it would be like losing a mother or a father.”
She points out that the pack can stay together after losing one of the puppies, even an older one. But losing a leader is different. Wolves learn from older pack mates. According to Cassidy, leaders teach young wolves what prey to hunt, how to avoid roads, and most of the things they need to know to survive. Young wolves do not receive this training if the pack loses its leader.
The five-park study did not compare human-caused mortality to wolf-versus-wolf mortality, says Joseph Bump, one of the study’s authors as well as one of the founders of the University of Minnesota. Wolf Travelers Project. “We need to keep asking the question, ‘Is human disturbance of the packs different from other causes of disturbance?’ Because causes of death that don’t involve humans can affect packs in the same way,” he says.
Still, there’s reason to think that human-caused mortality might have a greater effect if for no other reason than the fact that humans are likely to kill larger, more experienced wolves. “Hunters pick the biggest wolves to take down,” Smith says. “He’s usually a grown male, an older, wiser wolf who’s survived a few battles.” And those wolves, remember, are the ones teaching the younger ones how and what to hunt.
The strength of the wolf is the pack
Although there is not much data on this, it is possible that pack disruptions due to the loss of a leader could potentially exacerbate conflicts with humans. “There are packs of wolves that have access to cattle and sheep but don’t go after them,” Bump says. He asks us to imagine that the pack loses an individual who makes 40% of the pack’s victims. The resulting food stress could cause surviving members of the pack to start preying on pets.
Another scenario described by Bump is a pack losing an older, experienced member who was good at pack-to-pack interactions. The loss of this wolf could mean the pack is losing territory and being pushed into areas with less prey and, possibly, more humans and their livestock.
The outcomes of wolves killed, at the hands of humans or otherwise, are complex. But one thing is clear: if we want to understand how to protect wolves and coexist with them, we need to understand how our actions affect wolves at the pack level, not just at the population level. We have to get to know the family.
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