A departure from museums today, to discuss an interesting article I found today in New Scientist about wolves.
It shows that the idea of a ‘pack heirarchy’, with a strict pecking order and constant inter-pack competition for resources, is now a very outdated one. It was about 30 years ago that David Mech started publishing papers about the dynamics of natural wolf packs (made up of a breeding pair and their offspring) and how they differ from unnatural packs (made up of several unrelated individuals). You find unnatural packs in areas where wolf hunting is still allowed, as family groups are torn apart and surviving members are forced into coalitions with unrelated wolves in order to hunt. In these groups there is much more competition for food and resources than there is in a family group, because there is much less incentive for cooperation. Sadly, this is now starting to happen in areas that were previously protected, as hunting bans on the borders of National Parks are repealed (including Yellowstone, resulting in the destruction of at least one long-standing and well-studied pack).
In natural packs, the ‘dominance heirarchy’ idea goes out of the window: a wolf pack made of a family group is more like you’d expect a family to be – the parents are in charge, keeping the children in line, and they are all more inclined to cooperate than argue because they are related. You no longer get the strict Alpha-Omega pack structure that was observed from earlier studies on unnatural packs. But even unnatural packs show how socially adaptable wolves are as a species: where hunting and habitat destruction has reduced population numbers of African Wild Dogs, they are now dying out because they need to live in large family groups to share hunting and puppy-care duties, but wolves are able to make almost any social situation work to their advantage, at least in the short term, and are not so dependent on group living.
It is interesting that family dynamics affect not just inter-pack relationships and behaviour, but also affects the local ecology: in areas where wolves are not hunted and packs are made of family groups, wolves will take bigger prey (including moose), because youngsters are able to learn from their parents the valuable hunting techniques needed, and pack sizes tend to be larger. They also promote diveristy: in areas with intact natural wolf packs you see more songbirds, wildflowers, beavers and amphibians, because they keep down the numbers of large grazers.
A few years ago there was talk of reintroducing wolves to the UK (they were wiped out here in the 18th Century), somewhere in the Highlands of Scotland where they’re out of the way of most people and livestock, but it doesn’t seem to have gotten any further than talk yet. Which is a shame, because studies showed that wolf reintroduction could have conservation benefits by naturally controlling red deer populations. And I for one would love to hear the sound of wolf howls ringing out over the mountains!